Part of Timothy’s responsibility as a teacher is not only to introduce new things but to remind people of what they already know. Most of us already know enough new things but we need to be reminded of what we know already – and we don’t always appreciate it. I need to be reminded constantly to take out the garbage, keep doctor appointments, change the oil on the car, and a host of other small things that make up a normal life. Sometimes I need to be reminded of larger things just like the people of Israel. They needed to be reminded they served one God and him alone. They needed to be reminded of who they were as a people and what was expected of them. They needed to be reminded of their promises and commitments to each other. These were not rebukes or harangues – just reminders. It’s not rebellion on our part – just absent mindedness. Often, a reminder is enough but sometimes it is not.
That is why Paul says if reminding does not work then warn them. Raise the ante a bit. Hold their feet to the fire so they feel the heat.
What is the issue that needs more than reminding? It is arguing about words and trivialities. It is as Peter Drucker once said about academic disputes – the fights are so intense because the stakes are so small. It’s Paul’s version of turning around in the front seat of the car and telling children that if they don’t stop pestering each other about nothing we are going to stop the car and take care of it for them. “Don’t make me stop this car.” A warning should be enough.
But, sometimes, it gets out of hand and the arguing escalates into something that turns everything upside down and everyone around gets drawn into the drama. I know you’ve been in places like that where what begins as a disagreement between two people soon pulls everyone into the conflict. Of course, some people have a knack for creating drama just to distract people from their incompetence. They pick fights and name call and turn everything upside down almost for the sport of it. The word here for “ruin” is the word “katastrophe” and it describes the results of people who love chaos and turning things upside down all the time. That is the kind of person Paul says needs constant warning about the dangers of their behavior. They ruin people. They ruin institutions. We’ll see later that their effect is like an infection that spreads and becomes lethal.
But Paul’s first piece of advice for handling these kinds of people is for Timothy to be a workman who correctly handles the word of truth. Truth is the first line of defense against the infection of false teaching and uninterrupted lies. It is an antibiotic. As good money drives out bad and light drives out darkness so does truth make it difficult for lies to spread. Truth and reminding people of the truth is the first weapon against the power of lies. The first line of defense is not radical or separating the offender – but it is sound teaching of the truth that cuts off the oxygen of those who love chaos. The banner of the Washington Post is “Democracy dies in darkness” and regardless of what you might think about the Washington Post the words are true. Sometimes it is enough to simply but constantly remind people of the truth so they are not misled by lies. It is enough to expose the lies – just as that small newspaper in Puerto Rico did by publishing the exchanges of the disgraced Governor who resigned this week.
The work of the teacher needs approval. Approval of his work by God is not the same thing as being fully accepted by God. Our work and our person are not the same thing. God loves us completely and with no reservation but, like a teacher who loves students and also has high standards, He wants the work to be our best. The writer of Hebrews uses the word discipline. “Endure hardship as a discipline. God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciplined then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.” The word is not punishment but discipline. Sending the work back until it is done right is not hating the student, is it? Just the opposite.
And that is why the word for a good teacher is not intellectual, brilliant, or even inspiring. It is being a “workman” and one who has confidence that he has produced work that will not be rejected or disapproved. He has worked it to be the best he has to offer.
Workman is the word for a common laborer, a hired hand, a field worker and not an executive or professional. The teacher’s trade is honorable but not one of esteem or high position. However, that does not mean he produces shoddy work. Just the opposite. The worker becomes a craftsman over time so that his work is valued by the quality of how it teaches the basic truths of the faith. Becoming a craftsman takes years and the goal is not to produce work that is better than others or to be thought of more highly than others but only to have your work approved by God. The approval of men encourages comparison and competition. The approval of God is a result of producing work that is useful for God’s purposes.
So, what is his craft? It is what Paul calls “orthotemeo” or rightly dividing and correctly handling the word of God. It’s a surgical term. It means “cutting straight” and not hacking or slashing. It requires not only practice and skill but healthy confidence. There should be an appropriate amount of genuine fear as well when handling the word of God. It should never be routine I’ve read about great surgeons and how they approach their work – especially the importance of that first incision and the skill of orthotemeo.
“I’m handed the scalpel to make the initial incision. It certainly is surreal. It’s a surprisingly pivotal moment as it’s at that point that it occurs to me that we’re really about to perform this operation—you’re committing yourself to it. It’s also got to be done right first time—there’s no going back from an incorrect first incision. I was extremely cautious as I didn’t want to go too deep too soon. Nothing really can prepare you for it, and over time I’ve become more confident and calm about handling the scalpel.
Unwavering concentration, cat-like reflexes, and a steadfast nerve are prerequisites for qualifying as a surgeon, not to mention the ability to complete procedures that sometimes take up to 18 hours.”
That is what Paul is saying to Timothy. You are not only a worker, and not only a craftsman but someone who uses God’s word like a scalpel making incisions in the bodies and souls of people and you must take it seriously. You must handle it carefully and with great respect.
“We priests are the surgeons of souls, and it is our duty to deliver them of shameful secrets they would fain conceal, with hands careful to neither wound no pollute.”
― Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly
Paul goes on to describe what happens when the first lines of defense are not enough. The infection becomes life-threatening and Paul calls it gangrene. Gangrene is caused with blood flow stops to a part of the body and that is exactly what happens in the church or any organization. The flow of truth is cut off and the body begins to wither and become vulnerable to something much worse than an infection. Sometimes gangrene can be successfully treated but sometimes it requires amputation to save the life of the patient.
Something happened in Tyler years ago that reminded me of this passage. The forced desegregation of our public schools split this community and the controversy around the decision of William Wayne Justice was approaching chaos. If you were here you remember that decision and the aftermath that lasted for years – even today. I’ve told people you could truthfully say William Wayne cut the community off at the knees in a drastic move but his mandate saved Tyler from the entrenched gangrene of racism and segregation that would have been much worse than amputation. That particular gangrene – white supremacy and what we now call the Christian Identity Movement – is just another form of gangrene in our country. It is the belief that only white people have souls and that non-whites or what they call the “mud people” are impure blood and a threat not only to white people but to Christian churches and culture. It is still radical and taken seriously by only a few unstable people but it is spreading and I’m afraid the first line of defense – telling the truth – has been crossed and the infection is affecting more than a few angry and easily influenced Christians. This is what Paul was talking about when he described the effects of false teachers over time. They create turmoil, quarrels, divisions, strife, and eventually threaten the life of the Church. Stay away from these people. One description of gangrene is when the flesh becomes hard, cold and numb. That is how Paul describes the false teachers. They are hardened to the Spirit, cold toward others, and numb to the reminders of truth. They dehumanize people and consider them vermin living in infested cities and countries.
And that is what Paul says next. Stay away from people like this and pursue a different kind of relationship.
“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” As we’ve said before, Paul is a list maker. He makes lists in almost every letter he writes – gifts of the Spirit, sins of the flesh, attributes of love, and even a list of what to think about in Philippians 4. None of them are exhaustive or meant to make us believe we need to only do those things or stay away from those things. They are sketches and not detailed instructions.
But I do love the balance of flee and pursue. It’s not enough to run away, is it? We must have something to pursue in its place.
Normally, we think of evil desires of youth as physical lust. But the word lust or desire here means more than that. It also means impulse or things we do without thinking. It can be unhealthy – like the desires when we are young that take us down the wrong path – like extreme ambition, greed, arrogance, and the feeling of being immortal. In time, some of those lose their power over us but are replaced with other desires and impulses – like significance, influence, security of wealth, and the appearance of success. Those are the evil desires of age we are to flee.
But there are also good desires and and impulses and here it is the same word. Paul says he desires to depart and be with Christ. There are good desires of age as well. The desire for wisdom, kindness, courage, discernment, and tolerance. It’s a mark of maturity when these things no longer require determined discipline but are so much a part of our character that we display them without thinking. They are impulsive in the best way and come so naturally that we don’t have to force them.
A young friend I had lunch with this week told me he used the photo altering app that shows you what you will look like when you are 85 or older. He tacked it up on the wall of his office and asked himself the question, “What kind of man do I want to be when I look like that?” That is, in a sense, what Scripture is talking about here. Replace the desires and impulses of immaturity with the mature desires and impulses of age. This doesn’t mean our older years are colorless or regimented. On the contrary, they can be filled with all the good things that only come with age. We have put away childish things as intended. But we have not stopped learning or growing. We have made room for better things.
To do that is more than pursuing a list of character qualities but it is the pursuit of being influenced and shaped by people who exhibit these traits. Some people call them role models or mentors. They are called wisdom figures or tribal leaders. Whatever, they are people who embody what Paul is describing as spiritual maturity. Where do we find them – especially as we get older? I had many as a young man but they have gradually died and replacing them is difficult. That may also explain why so many of us as we get older and lose our living heroes that we turn to reading the classics and books that are timeless. Perhaps, the answer is finding younger people who have more of these traits than I do. I suspect that would not be difficult! How do I search out righteousness, faith, love and peace in the next generation? Fortunately, there is a movement of people who are doing just that. It is called intergenerational relationships and it means learning from those who are younger while they learn from those of us who are older as well. Some of my teachers and models are thirty years younger than me now.
Finally, the end goal is not fame or personal glory. It is to be used for a noble purpose, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.
That is why we come together every week. To be prepared to be useful and not museum pieces of personal piety. To be prepared for a noble purpose and not desire nobility for ourselves. To be workmen and craftsmen, to be people that younger people pursue, and to fight the constant lies, infections, and life-threatening gangrene of false teachers and leaders.