A Good Servant of Jesus Christ, 1 Timothy 4:6-10
Philip Ryken, in his commentary on this passage, tells the story of the funeral of the nineteenth century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge. A champion of the Reformed faith, he was a very gifted man and he used his gifts to teach and defend the gospel. His Systematic Theology is still read to this day. Another famous theologian, John Murray, read Hodge's theology until its pages were well worn. But Hodge was more than a brilliant academic. More importantly, he was a good and godly man. On the day of his funeral, all the shops in Princeton were closed in recognition of his life. One of his former students, William Paxton, gave this tribute to Hodge: “When due allowance is made for his intellect and his learning, after all his chief power was in his goodness. Christ enshrined in his heart was the centre of his theology and his life. The world will write upon his monument GREAT; but we, his students, will write upon it GOOD.”1
On the other hand, it is said that Napoleon claimed he would do anything, as long as there was a medal or honor attached to it. Some men live for greatness. But that is not what Paul encourages Timothy to strive for. Instead, he says, “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ.” In other words, it is goodness, not greatness, for which Timothy is to aim. One is reminded of the words God spoke to Baruch, the prophet Jeremiah's scribe: “And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not” (Jer. 45:5).
In the end, goodness is the only thing that counts. God is not looking for great men and women, he is looking for good men and women. In the parable of the talents, the lord says to the servants who did their master's bidding, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, 23). Clearly, in the parable, God is the lord and we are in the place of the servants. So what we should want to hear from God, above all things, are the words “good and faithful servant.”
The fact that Paul exhorts Timothy to be a good servant of Christ implies that not all who claim to be his servants are good. Some, despite the fact that they claim to be his servants, “seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's” (Phil. 2:21). So that begs the question: what does it mean to be a good servant of Jesus Christ?
Goodness requires Godliness
Probably the best way to fill up the meaning of “good” is to use the word “godliness,” for that is the very thing that Paul emphasizes in this text. In the next verse, Paul goes on to exhort Timothy to train himself for godliness because godliness has the promise “of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” In fact, of the fifteen times the word “godliness” (eusebeia) is used in the New Testament, ten of those are in the Pastoral epistles, eight in Paul's first letter to Timothy. Clearly, if Timothy was to be a good servant of Jesus Christ, he must be a godly man first and foremost.
Godliness means “being totally consecrated to God, to his worship, and to the fulfillment of his will”2 and is roughly equivalent with the Old Testament summary of true religion in the phrase “the fear of God.” A godly person is one who lives before God, and whose reverence of him finds its way into every aspect of life, in belief and behavior.
In fact, godliness is so important that Paul ascribes a saying about it to one of the several “faithful sayings” in this epistle: “godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation” (8-9). What does Paul mean by this? Paul is contrasting the benefits of godliness with bodily exercise, which “profits little” or “profits for a little time.” On the other hand, “godliness is profitable unto all things.” Physical exercise has benefits only for the present, but godliness is beneficial not only for the present life but also for the age to come.
Paul is not teaching that godliness gives us the best of both worlds. He is not saying that if you're godly, you can expect “the good life now” and when you die, eternal life. In Paul, God's promise has little to do with the blessings of the present age: rather, God's promise is salvific and comes through Christ: “All the promises of God in him [Christ] are yea, and in him amen, unto the glory of God by us” (2 Cor. 1:20). We are children of the promise (Gal. 4:28), a promise that does not exempt one from persecution (Gal. 4:29).
Nor is Paul teaching that godliness gains eternal life. Again, that would contradict the word “promise” which Paul uses to sum up the benefits of godliness: in Paul's writings, “promise” is used of God's gracious promise to save in contrast with the law. For example, in Galatians 3:18, he tells us that “if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (cf Rom 4:13-16).
To get at Paul's meaning here, note that Paul is not referring to “life” in two different senses in this verse, as if he were saying, “This present temporal existence and the eternal enjoyment of the presence of God forever.” Rather, it is the promise of life – a life which is experienced by the believer now and in the age to come. The only other place in the New Testament where this phrase occurs “the promise of life” is in 2 Tim. 1:1, where Paul appends to it the following words “which is in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the life under consideration is the life that comes to us through Jesus Christ. It is a reference to all the saving benefits of his atoning death and resurrection.
Note that Paul says that godliness is beneficial in every way because it has the promise of life that now is and of that which is to come. What Paul is saying is that those who are godly have the blessings of God's saving benefits in Christ both now and in the age to come. It is not that godliness merits them, but it is inseparable from them. A saved man is a godly man. A woman who lives under the saving blessings of God is a woman who fears the Lord. In other words, what Paul is saying is that a godly person is a person who is saved, and the benefits of salvation extend beyond the present life into the age to come. William Hendrikson summarizes the teaching of this passage well, when he says that “this life which God bestows, and which surpasses all other blessings in value, is both for the present and for the future, for the age that now is and for the coming age.”3
There are some who place such emphasis upon the fact that we are saved by grace that they minimize the place and especially the importance of good works. It is not that they completely ignore good works. But such people place such a distance between salvation and works that one gets the impression that godliness is unnecessary for the enjoyment of eternal life. In fact, some even teach that. There are some hyper-calvinists who teach that many of the elect will in this life never know or follow Christ, will reject him and his gospel and yet in the end be saved, because they are elect. On the other hand, there are some on the other end of the theological spectrum who teach that as long as you make a profession of faith in Christ – if you have said “the prayer” – then you will be saved, even if you do not follow and obey Christ. Both these positions, in magnifying one aspect of the doctrine of salvation, the fact that it is by grace apart from works, end up denying another aspect, the fact that we are saved unto good works.
What Paul says here stands in direct contradiction to such false emphases. For his point here is that godliness is is the indispensable evidence for God's saving work in the heart. Paul will say something very similar in his next letter to Timothy. After lamenting the fact that the false teachers had led many astray, he triumphs in the fact that the devil's work will never in the end undo God's work: “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” The clear implication of this text is that those who are known by the Lord (entirely of his grace) are precisely those who depart from iniquity.
The fact that godliness has the promise of life means not only that godliness is the primary evidence of possessing the benefits of Christ's redemption, but also that the godly enjoy those benefits in the here and now, and that this extends not only to the forgiveness of sins and justification and adoption, but to all the consequences of those blessings, the fellowship of God. John wrote that the reason he was writing was so that his audience might have fellowship “with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” so that their “joy may be full” (1 John 1:3,4). There is no greater gift than to experience the fellowship of God. In fact, the entire purpose of justification and the forgiveness of sins is so that sinful man can experience this fellowship. Justification alone is not salvation – it is the necessary requirement for our being able to be brought nigh unto God (Eph. 2:13).
John, however, went on to say the following thing, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (verses 5-6). In other words, fellowship with God must be consistent with who he is. God is holy, and if you would have fellowship with him, you must also be holy. That is what Paul is saying to Timothy. He must exercise himself unto godliness, for only in this way will he experience the incredible blessing of God's fellowship, a blessing which is experienced in the here and now and in the age to come. It is, I think, what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
John Stott has written that he “cannot imagine a nobler ambition than to be a 'good minister' of his [Christ's].”4 It is truly a noble calling. But it contains within itself its own blessing. For to be a good minister of Christ means that one is a godly servant of Christ, and a godly servant of Christ is one is knows something of the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). This, then, begs the question, how does one get to be godly? What are the steps that need to be taken to get there?
Getting to Godliness
First of all, if you would be godly, and therefore a good minister of Jesus Christ, who must nourish yourself by the word of God. Paul writes, “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, that shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained” (6). “These things” are a reference to Paul's teaching in the previous 5 verses, and indeed, of everything that he had said up to that point. And “the words of the faith” is a reference to the whole of Christian teaching of which our faith is the object. Such words produce “good doctrine,” sound and healthy teaching. Timothy had himself closely followed this teaching up till then, and by continuing in this way he would be a good servant of Christ. Moreover, by putting these things in front of the brethren, he would put them also on the road to being good and faithful servants of Jesus.
That means you have to read God's word, it means you have to think about God's word, it means you have to put it into practice. It also means you have to have an appetite for God's word. There are several reasons why people don't have an appetite for Scripture. One is that they may be spiritually sick. This past week, I have been pretty sick, and as a result I didn't want to eat anything. Not even things that were good for me. Of course, this was part of my illness. Even so, people who are spiritually sick, who through sin have alienated themselves from God, often want nothing to do with the word of God. It is tasteless to them, or even revolting.
When the illness is suspending, an appetite returns. Even so, when the sinner repents, he longs for the word of God. If you are lacking an appetite for the nourishing words of God, search your soul and see if there is sin there that has diseased your spiritual taste buds.
Another reason people don't have an appetite for the Bible is that they have filled themselves up with other things. They have filled up their hearts with the junk food of this world and as a result have no room for the promises of God. Perhaps this is why Paul went on to say, “But refuse profane and old wives' fables” (7a). The false teachers had filled themselves up on silly myths, and Paul wants to make sure that Timothy doesn't follow suit.
It is so easy to become distracted by the things of this world that have no ultimate significance or value. Lewis hit the nail on the head when he said that “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”5 It is because we fail to see that the things we wrap our hearts around – like drink and sex and ambition and worldy ease and human praise and entertainment – are in comparison to God's holy truth and the blessings of godliness nothing but “profane and old wives' fables.”
Your heart only has limited space. It is not infinite. So make sure you don't fill it up with other things so that God's word no longer has any place. And if your heart is already full, then you need to throw some junk out. Make space for the Word of God in your heart! Create an appetite for it; pray that God would give you that appetite.
In the second place, if you would be godly, you must discipline yourself in the practice of godliness: “and exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (7b). The word that Paul uses here is gymnazo, and its literal meaning is to train like an athlete. As in our time, so in the first century, there was an incredible emphasis upon the training of the body, of being physically fit. But Paul says that the priorities of that world and ours is misplaced – it is not that we should stop training, it is that we are training for the wrong thing. You can hear this same concern of Paul's in his word to the Corinthians: “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:25).
In other words, godliness doesn't just happen. We have to strive for it. Another word that Paul uses two verses later is agonizomai, from which we get the word “agonize.” Sometimes, I think that people use a false spirituality to justify a lack of discipline on their part. Such people speak of “waiting on God” or of “letting go and letting God.” And though it is true that ultimately everything good in us is from God, that without Christ we can do nothing – yet that is no reason to sit back and do nothing while waiting for God. Paul put it best: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Christ must strengthen us, yes – but we must do as well.
And this discipline extends not just to Bible reading, but to prayer and to the cultivation of the spiritual fruits in our lives. You must work hard at them. You must plan for them. You must persevere in them.
Finally, if you would gain godliness, you have to keep your faith and hope in God. Paul writes that the reason he could labor and strive in the pursuit of godliness was “because we hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe” (10). God is not just the way to the prize; he is the prize. Godliness is not really the end, God is. If you want to be godly so people will admire you, then you have got it all wrong. Or if you want to be godly just to feel superior to others, you have got it all wrong. God must be the end of all that we strive for, and so in striving for godliness, we need to have our eye on God, not ourselves.
But there is something else that Paul is saying here. He has told us that godliness has the promise of life that now is and is to come. God has promised eternal life to the godly, or as Jude put it, to be presented faultless before the presence of God's glory with exceeding and never-ending joy (Jude 24). That is a breath-taking promise. It is something that no one or nothing on earth could ever give. But Paul knew that God delivers on his promises. He believed not only that God is but that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). Therefore, he could take the hits, the toil and the hard work. In a similar way, Paul would write to Timothy in his second letter, “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). God was not only the end of godliness for Paul, he is the one who keeps us and preserves us unto his heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18).
Paul knew that a lot of people and dark forces were at work against him in this world. But God was there to save. Some people understand “Savior” in verse 10 in a generic sense, as if Paul were saying that God “helps all men, especially those who believe.” In that case, Paul would be saying that God helps everyone in the sense of common grace (sending rain on the just and unjust) but helps believers in a special way, in the sense that he saves them from sin. The problem with this is that this is parallel to a similar passage in the second chapter (verses 3-6) and in that text God as Savior clearly means that God is the one who saves from sin and all its consequences. So here, Paul is saying that his faith and hope was in the one who could give everlasting life, because he is the one in whom all life resides – he is the “living God.”
Now that doesn't mean that God saves everyone that has ever lived. Paul was no universalist. When Paul wrote that God is the Savior of all men, he is using the term “all” in the sense of “all sorts of” - both Jew and Gentile. This is seen further in the way that Paul qualifies this text, “especially of them that believe.” It has been noted by many Biblical scholars that “especially” here carries the sense of “to be precise.” In other words, “those who believe” are not a subset of “all men:” - they define what Paul meant by all men. God saves those who believe in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he saves them forever. Nothing on earth can separate them from his embrace. And therefore Paul was not going to give up his quest for godliness.
Nothing that we do for this world can carry with it such assurances. Though we may have more immediate results, nothing that we do for this age goes beyond it. Godliness is different. It has the promise of life that now is and of that which is to come. And therefore, if you would strive for anything, strive for godliness. For when you strive for godliness through faith in Christ, you are striving for God. And he is the best of all gifts.
“Nothing of earth is sure,
Vain hope soon dies;
Things of the Lord endure:
1Ryken, I Timothy (REC)
2Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (WBC)
3Hendrikson, NTC: Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus.
4Stott, Guard the Truth.
5From The Weight of Glory