Be thou an example…in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

1 Timothy 4:12

The Christian churches of our day have suffered a great loss in rejecting the example of good men, choosing instead the “celebrity of the hour” for their pattern.

We must agree that it is altogether unlikely that we know who our “greatest” men are.

One thing is sure, however—the greatest man alive today is the best man alive today. That is not open to debate.

Spiritual virtues run deep and silent. The holy and humble man will not advertise himself nor allow others to do it for him.

The Christian who is zealous to promote the cause of Christ can begin by living in the power of God’s Spirit, and so reproducing the life of Christ in the sight of men. In deep humility and without ostentation, he can let his light shine.

To sum it all up: The most effective argument for Christianity is still the good lives of those who profess it!

Lord, I pray that You will enable me to be an example of Your love and humility in every situation today, tomorrow and the weeks that follow.[1]

4:12 At the time of this Letter, Timothy was probably between thirty and thirty-five years of age. In contrast with some of the elders in the assembly at Ephesus, he would be a comparatively young man. That is why Paul says here, “Let no one despise your youth.” This does not mean that Timothy is to put himself on a pedestal and consider himself immune from criticism. Rather, it means he is to give nobody occasion to condemn him. By being an example to the believers, he is to avoid the possibility of justified criticism.

In word refers to Timothy’s conversation. His speech should always be that which should characterize a child of God. He should not only avoid such speech as is distinctly forbidden, but also such as would not be edifying for his hearers.

In conduct refers to one’s entire demeanor. Nothing about his deportment should cause reproach on the name of Christ.

In love suggests that love should be the motive for conduct, as well as the spirit in which it is carried out and the goal toward which it strives.

In spirit is lacking in most modern versions and commentaries that follow the critical text. However, the words do occur in the traditional and majority texts. Guy King decries the fact that enthusiasm, his insightful understanding of the phrase, is a:

… quality strangely lacking from the make-up of many Christians. Plenty of enthusiasm for a football match, or for an election campaign, but so little of it for the service of GOD. How the magnificent enthusiasm of the Christian Scientists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Communists should put us to shame. Oh, for the flaming zeal again that once the church knew. This fine spirit will greatly help Timothy as he seeks to consolidate the position and to advance the line.

In faith probably means “in faithfulness,” and carries the idea of dependability and steadfastness.

Purity should characterize not only his acts but his motives as well.[2]

12. Let no one despise your youth.

It may be assumed that about the year 51, when Timothy joined Paul who was on his second missionary journey, the former had reached the age of 22–27 years of age. It is hardly probable that the apostle would have permitted a man even younger than that to join him in such a difficult task. Besides, we know that Timothy must have reached a degree of maturity even during Paul’s first missionary journey, for it was then that he had “confessed his faith.” If this calculation be correct, then Timothy is now—i.e., about the year 63—somewhere between 34 and 39 years of age. According to Ireneus, the first stage of life embraces thirty years and extends onward until forty years (Against Heresies, II. xxii). Hence, Timothy was still “a young man.” Besides, he must have been considered very young for the position which he occupied: apostolic representative and as such chief over all the presbyters in the churches of Ephesus and surroundings. These presbyters (as the very name implies), in ancient Israel, in the later synagogue, and also in the early church—which in many ways copied the synagogue—were generally old or at least elderly men. And here is Timothy, a much younger man and moreover a person of natural reserve and timidity, wielding authority over those who were his seniors by perhaps 10–40 years! Hence, the command, “Let no one look down upon you”—the Greek idiom says, “Let no one think down upon you”—was called for. Timothy must not permit anyone to despise him because of his youth. He must see to it that he is respected because of his office. But he must attain this end not by “acting big” or bragging about his credentials, but by conducting himself as a man of sage counsel and consecrated, practical wisdom. Respect for the man will mean respect for his office! Hence, Paul continues, But become the believers’ model in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. In an altogether natural and organic manner he must win the respect of all the believers. Note that Paul does not really say that Timothy should become a model for the believers, that is, for them to follow (see N.T.C. on 1 Thess. 1:7; 2 Thess. 3:9), but that ever increasingly he should become a model of what the believers are; and this in five respects:

  1. in speech, that is, in personal conversation (for preaching see the next verse).
  2. in conduct, that is, in customs, habits, ways of dealing with people, etc.
  3. in love, that is, in deep personal attachment to his brothers and in genuine concern for his neighbors (including even his enemies), always seeking to promote the welfare of all.
  4. in faith, that is, in the exercise of that gift of God which is the root from which love springs (note: love here probably indicates the horizontal relationship; faith, the vertical).
  5. in purity (see also 1 Tim. 5:2), that is, in complete conformity, both in thought and act, with God’s moral law.[3]

An Excellent Minister Is a Model of Spiritual Virtue

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. (4:12)

The single greatest tool of leadership is the power of an exemplary life. The Puritan Thomas Brooks said, “Example is the most powerful rhetoric” (Cited in I. D. E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977], 96). Setting an example of godly living that others can follow is the sine qua non of excellence in ministry. When a manifest pattern of godliness is missing, the power is drained out of preaching, leaving it a hollow, empty shell. A minister’s life is his most powerful message, and must reinforce what he says or he may as well not say it. Authoritative preaching is undermined if there is not a virtuous life backing it up.

The New Testament has much to say about the crucial role of example. To the Corinthians Paul wrote, “I exhort you therefore, be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16; cf.. 11:1). In Philippians 3:17 he said, “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us,” while Philippians 4:9 says, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you.” He reminded the Thessalonians that

our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit. (1 Thess. 1:5–6; cf.. 2 Thess. 3:7–9)

The writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers to “remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

By cautioning Timothy not to allow anyone to look down on his youthfulness, Paul warned him that because he had no long record to establish credibility, he would have to earn the respect of his people. The Greeks, as did most cultures, subordinated youth to age. If a man did not have age, he would have to earn respect.

Paul refers to Timothy as young, although it was now some fifteen years since they first met on the apostle’s second missionary journey. Timothy was probably in his early twenties at that time. Although he was now in his late thirties, he was thirty years the junior of the aged apostle (Philem. 9) and still considered young by the standards of Greek culture. Luke describes Paul as a young man in Acts 7:58, though he must have been over thirty. Neotēs (youthfulness) was used to describe anyone under the age of forty. To offset that youthfulness, Paul exhorted Timothy to be an example of those who believe. Tupos (example) means “pattern,” or “model.” By so doing, he would gain the respect of his people. Paul lists five areas in which Timothy was to make every effort to be an example to the church.

First, Timothy was to be an example in speech. The conversation of an excellent minister must be exemplary. In Matthew 12:34–37, Jesus warned,

For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.

A man’s speech reflects what is in his heart.

All types of sinful speech must be avoided by a man of God. That includes any deviation from truthfulness, as Paul makes clear in Ephesians 4:25 when he says, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor.” Nothing more surely reveals a sinful soul and more swiftly destroys a leader’s credibility than lies. Absolute honesty is essential for one who speaks on behalf of the “God who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), and who hates lying (Prov. 6:16–17; 12:22). Ephesians 4:26 forbids angry speech, verse 29 impure speech, and verse 31 slanderous words. Such speech reflects an impure heart. To be called an excellent minister, one’s speech must be “good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

Second, Timothy was to be an example in conduct. An excellent minister is required to be a model of righteous living who manifests his biblical convictions in every area of his life. A biblical message paired with an ungodly lifestyle is nothing but blatant hypocrisy. Worse, people will tend to follow how the man lives, not what he teaches. On the other hand, a godly life brings power and authority to a man’s message.

Scripture is replete with exhortations to godly living. James writes, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom” (James 3:13). Peter had much to say on the subject: “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Peter 1:15); “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12); “Keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16).

Third, Timothy was to be an example in love. Biblical love is far different from the emotion our culture calls love. It involves self-sacrificing service on behalf of others regardless of how one feels. In John 15:13 our Lord said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” That verse sums up the essence of ministry as self-sacrificial love. The excellent minister gives his time and energy to the people he is called to serve, devoting his whole life to seeing them strengthened and built up in the Lord.

No personal sacrifice is too great, as Paul noted in Philippians 2:17: “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” He could readily say, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (Which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). His love was so great for those he served that he was willing to love even if that love was not returned. He reminded the Corinthians of his love for them (2 Cor. 2:4; 11:11) and even adds, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you the more, am I to be loved the less” (2 Cor. 12:15)? His love for the church made him feel the pains of suffering all the time (cf.. 2 Cor. 1:5–11; 6:4–10; 11:23–29; 12:7–10).

Paul reminded the Thessalonians that

we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (1 Thess. 2:7–12)

In Philippians 2:25–30, Paul commended Epaphroditus, who, like the apostle himself, had nearly died from his strenuous service in the cause of Christ. And since an excellent minister works with eternity in view, he sees the sacrifices of love he makes as small.

Fourth, Timothy was to be an example in faith. Faith here does not refer to belief, but to faithfulness or unswerving commitment. An excellent minister is consistently faithful. He does not swerve off the track; he does not deviate from his course. “It is required of stewards,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:2, “that one be found trustworthy.” This essential virtue of loyalty separates those who succeed in having a powerful influence from those who do not.

Finally, Timothy was to be an example in purity. Hagneia (purity) refers primarily to purity in the area of sexuality, both in actions and in the intentions of the heart. Nothing so ravages a ministry as sexual impurity. That is certainly evident in the list of standards for an overseer who is “above reproach.” Heading that list is the requirement that he be a “one-woman man” (1 Tim. 3:2). Leaders are especially vulnerable in that area, since it is a priority area of qualification, and thus a common avenue of attack by Satan. An excellent minister must heed Paul’s admonishment to Timothy to “flee from youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22).

Anyone who is not able to set a pattern of godly virtue in those areas does not belong in church leadership. Since a leader’s life sets the standard for others to follow, an unqualified leader inevitably lowers the standard of godliness in the church.[4]

12 Some may disparage Timothy’s teaching on account of his relative youth (neotēs, GK 3744; cf. Mk 10:20 par. Lk 18:21; Ac 26:4; he may have been in his late thirties at the time of writing [Irenaeus, Haer. 2.22.5]; see Introduction). While Timothy may not be considered too young for leadership in Western culture today, leaders in the ancient world were usually older people respected in the community and endowed with ample life experience. Without being legalistic, today’s churches could learn from first-century practice and be slow to put young men in charge of congregations (cf. “must not be a recent convert,” 3:6).

Timothy, the trusted apostolic delegate who had been nurtured in the faith from his youth, is to counter his age liability by setting an “example” (typos, GK 5596; cf. Ac 20:18–21, 33–34; 1 Co 10:6; Php 3:17; 1 Th 1:7; Tit 2:7; 1 Pe 5:3). Specifically, Paul singles out five areas in which Timothy must strive to conduct himself in an exemplary manner: “speech,” “life” (NASB, “conduct”), “love,” “faith,” and “purity” (cf. 6:11; 2 Ti 2:22).

(1)  “Speech” translates logos (GK 3364), which the NIV renders “preaching” in its closest parallel in this letter (5:17). This connection becomes explicit in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the Word” (kēryxon ton logon, GK 3062, 3364; cf. 2 Ti 2:17; 4:15).

(2)  Unlike the lives of the heretics, Timothy’s “life” (anastrophē, GK 419; cf. Gal 1:13) must not be divorced from his preaching; rather, he is to “watch [his] life and doctrine closely” (v. 16; cf. 1 Co 9:22),so that he may be a great blessing to others and help preserve them from all harm. As noted in ch. 3, the requirements there likewise focus primarily on character and conduct. The vital connection between a leader’s life and teaching is often severed today.

(3)  Another vital ingredient is “love” (agapē, GK 27), the cardinal Christian virtue (1 Co 13). Too often, leaders who ought to set a godly example are competitive, opinionated, and selfish. Yet love is concerned with the well-being of others and deals kindly with one’s opponents (2 Ti 2:24–25).

(4)  Next, as Paul has stated at the outset, it is “faith,” not controversies, that is the operative principle of God’s work. This faith is to be sincere and unhypocritical (1:5; cf. 2 Ti 1:5). Like love, it is ultimately a gift of God (cf. Eph 2:8–9; “faith” and “love” are also linked in 2:15; 6:11; 2 Ti 1:13; 2:22; 3:10; Tit 2:2; 3:15; only here does “love” precede “faith”). It must be held on to; the false teachers have “shipwrecked” whatever faith was theirs (1 Ti 1:19; cf. 6:10, 21). Moreover, faith is linked with “a good conscience” (1:5, 19).

(5) Finally, “purity” (hagneia, GK 48) of heart is also essential for a church leader (as it is for every believer; cf. 2 Ti 2:22; see comments at 5:2). Love can only spring from a pure heart (cf. 1:5). This purity of motive contrasts with that of the false teachers, whose motives are anything but pure (cf. 5:9–10). Purity of heart is also extolled in the OT (e.g., Ps 24:3–4). Jesus called “the pure in heart” blessed in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:8).

These are the areas of godliness Timothy is to cultivate. Guthrie, 109, aptly notes that “the qualities in which Timothy is to excel are those in which youth is so often deficient. Yet for that reason they would stand out the more strikingly. It would become evident to the Christian believers that authority in the community is contingent on character, not on age.” Like the physical strength and skill sought by an athlete, these virtues do not appear at once; rather, they require diligent practice over time. In Timothy’s day, as in ours, it is imperative that those called to lead do so by example.[5]

[1] Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2093). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 4, pp. 157–158). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (pp. 171–174). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Köstenberger, A. (2006). 1 Timothy. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 536–537). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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