Fight the Good Fight

The Lord's Day Morning
July 18, 2004

I Timothy 1:18-20
“Fight the Good Fight”

Dr. Derek Thomas

Now turn with me to I Timothy, chapter one. And we continue this morning in the section that closes the first chapter, verses eighteen through twenty. This section is basically a charge, a very solemn charge, at that, reminding us that as Christians, as believers, we are engaged in a war. It was a very basic understanding of the Christian life. The Reformers and our Puritan forefathers in this nation, and every Christian, is called to do battle, to take up an engagement in a spiritual act of warfare. There's a wonderful hymn that's in our hymnbook–we rarely, if ever sing it–it's number 603. It's by John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress and Grace Abounding and some sixty other books. He wrote this hymn “He Who Would True Valor See.” I recall singing it frequently in school, in state schools in Britain, of course, you still have an act of...well, religious worship of some kind. And I remember as a teenager being asked to sing, and this hymn, on a frequent basis.

“He who would true valor see, let him come hither./ One here will constant be, come wind, come weather./ There's no discouragement shall make him once relent/ his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.’ (2) “Whoso beset him round with dismal stories,/ do but themselves confound/ His strength the more is./ No lion can him fright, he’ll with a giant fight/ He will have a right to be a pilgrim.”

And it's that thought of engaging in a fight, an act of war, that is before us in our text. This morning before we read it together, let's come before God once again in prayer. Let's pray.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You again as we remind ourselves this is Your word. You are the one who caused it to be written, that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God. And we ask now for the help and blessing and outpouring of the Holy Spirit to illuminate these words as we read, mark, and study and learn and inwardly digest for Your glory. In Jesus’ name we ask it. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“(18) This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, (19) keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to the faith. (20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.”

Amen, and may God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

Jim Elliot was a missionary in Ecuador, known and loved by many of you. Many of you have read his book and the books especially of his wife, many of you have read some of her literature, too, Through Gates of Splendor and so on. And when Jim Elliot was asked to give his autograph, he would invariably write from II Timothy 2:4 the words “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please Him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.” And Jim Elliot, martyred as he was in Ecuador, was giving testimony to his basic understanding of what a Christian is: one who is engaged in an act of war; that we are soldiers in battle.

And Paul is writing to young Timothy, his son in the faith. It's an older, more experienced apostle giving words of counsel and wisdom to a young man on the verge of what will turn out to be a lifetime ministry on behalf of the Savior. And one of the most fundamental things that the Apostle Paul wants Timothy to understand is that he must fight the good fight of faith, that we are engaged in an act of war; that we wrestle not so much with the things of this world but with the spiritual forces which cannot be seen: the principalities and powers that are arrayed against us, or, in terms of that trilogy that is often cited when we think of our lives as an act of war in the kingdom, we wrestle against the world and the flesh, and against the devil.

It was Augustine who drew up the just war doctrine that when a state engages in an act of war against another state, it does so on the basis on defined ethical, moral principles, and that there is such a condition as a “just war.” A war that is right. Paul is saying to Timothy, this is a just war. This is a war in which we must fight. This is a war in which there can be no sense of neutrality, that we cannot be conscientious objectors in this war. There is a fight to be fought and every Christian has to be engaged in it. Now follow closely with me as we unpack what Paul has to say to Timothy. He says five basic things, the first of which is this:

I. Follow the command I give you.
This command I entrust to you. Timothy is a man under orders. This is, as it were, the general giving his field officer his orders for the day. And Timothy is a man under orders. He's not saying to Timothy, “this is just a piece of advice, I think it's good but you decide for yourself, and it's really up to you and it really doesn't matter what you do with it-- I want to share this with you, these are my sentiments and my feelings.” No. Paul is speaking to Timothy as an apostle. He's giving to him a word of instruction as a word that comes from Almighty God.

You understand, when Paul is writing to Timothy, Timothy doesn't have the New Testament. It would be a matter of conjecture this morning how much of the New Testament Timothy actually knew, if any at all; whether Timothy was aware at this stage of any of Paul's letters, whether he had copies of them, whether he had copies of the New Testament gospels, for example-- whether they were even written when Paul was writing to Timothy. No. Paul is giving to Timothy a word as an apostle, coming from God. He's to receive that word as coming from God, and Timothy will go back to his congregation in Ephesus and he’ll say to them on a Sunday morning, “this is what the Apostle Paul says.” But he’ll say more than that. He’ll say, “This is what God says. This is God's word. This is the word that has come from the Lord through the mouth of the Apostle Paul. There's a fight. There's a war to be engaged in.”

You notice that Paul uses a very technical word. “This command I entrust to you.” I entrust to you. And there's a sense in which the apostle is almost saying to Timothy, I am giving you now something precious and valuable, and I want you to hold on to it. I want you to heed it. I want you to obey it. I want you to understand I'm giving you something in trust. Follow the commands that I give to you.

II. Secondly, Paul says to Timothy, remember the prophecies made about you.
You see that in the middle of verse eighteen. “In accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you.” Now, this is a little tricky. We have to unpack this. It's not at first glance obvious what the Apostle Paul is exactly referring to when he's referring to some prophecy that was made concerning Timothy. Timothy was a timorous man. As you read First and Second Timothy, you’ll capture a little cameo portrait of what Timothy was like. You will discover that on many occasions the Apostle Paul will say to Timothy “be strong, be courageous.” Implying, it seems, that by nature Timothy wasn't very strong and wasn't very courageous. We know that physically–Paul, you remember says to him (and don't make too much of it), but Paul says take a little wine for your stomach's sake, because, well, he was a little queasy and he looked a little sickly-- and you know, just as you give your children, and as my mother gave to me, cod liver oil, when I was growing up. It was horrible, but she kept saying “You know, it will make you strong” and maybe it did, and maybe it didn't. Timothy, you get this impression that Timothy wasn't a terribly strong person, and Paul is exhorting him and he's reminding him of something that was said to him at a particular occasion.

More than likely the apostle is referring to the time that Timothy was formally set apart for gospel ministry that would eventually be in Ephesus. His ordination, if you like. There's a reference to that ordination in II Timothy 1:6,7: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands; for God didn't give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Paul is reminding Timothy of something called ‘the laying on of hands,’ and you've all witnessed something like that–a ceremony here where somebody is ordained. An elder, for example, or a teaching or ruling elder set apart for a particular task in a particular function. At various points in The Acts of the Apostles, there appear prophets. They’re not everywhere, not on every page of The Acts of the Apostles in the history of the early church. They’re not as frequent as you might suspect they were. They only seemed to appear at certain important junctures in redemptive history. When Barnabas and Saul, in Acts 13, for example, are set apart to become the apostles to the Gentiles, it's a significant moment in the history of the church. There appears to have been the ministry of prophets telling the church that was praying and fasting, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” God sort of underlines the importance of the moment by giving a word to prophets.

You read in The Acts of the Apostles on two different occasions the ministry of a prophet by the name of Agabus. One is a reference to a famine that has come, or will come, upon the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the most important city in the Bible, and God's judgment appears to be upon the city of Jerusalem. And Agabus, as a prophet, is given a word from God declaring that a famine will come upon the city.

On another occasion the Apostle Paul is determined to go to Jerusalem, and again Agabus, as a prophet, issues a word that says if he goes to Jerusalem, he will be imprisoned. And Paul seems to be saying to Timothy, “You remember your ordination. You remember that time when the church set you apart, recognized the gifts that God had given to you. And there was a little ceremony, you remember, and there were prophets there. And do you remember what the prophets said about you?” Now, we don't know what they said. The New Testament doesn't record that for us. But he's saying to Timothy, remember that. Remember what people said to you. Remember what the church did to you then, and remember its significance and importance.

I see a few seminary students down here. Let me just take a moment or two and address them. Forgive me for a second, I’ll come to the rest of you in a second, but let me just address these seminary students here. Some of you are under care. Some of you are under care of this particular church, and of this particular Session. You've come before the elders, the seventy elders of First Presbyterian Church. It was a daunting experience. It's one you never forget. And you’re under their care. They set you apart for gospel ministry. You’re not ordained yet, there's a long way to go. But it was the beginning. It was a stage in the process of how the church recognizes gifts for ministry. Remember that. Don't forget that, when you’re in your room at night and perhaps alone and you’re tempted to sin in some way. Remember, remember that the elders of this congregation set you apart. Don't ever forget that.

There are many ruling elders here. There are deacons here this morning. Remember what the church said to you. You came up here, you knelt down here at some occasion in the past. You were set apart. You were given the task. There were words, solemn words, repeated over your head. You were commissioned, you were given the charge.

Well, that's what Paul is saying to Timothy: remember that, don't forget that. When you’re tempted to let go of the reins, don't forget the words that were spoken to you at that moment.

Perhaps you thought because Ligon was away you wouldn't hear anything about Scotland this morning, but you were wrong! I want to say something about John Knox. John Knox was teaching in the church at St. Andrews–it's in the sixteenth century, the nation is in turmoil–and this congregation ...he's not a minister, he's not an elder, he's just somebody who's read the Greek New Testament, and he seems to have astonishing gifts and abilities, and the church is saying to each other, “Have you heard John Knox? We need this man as a preacher, we need this man to be set apart.” So they meet together and they huddle together, and they agree on a certain line of attack. And what they do is, they ask another minister who's preaching in St. Andrew's on a certain day, a man by the name of John Rough. And in the middle of the sermon–imagine, in the middle of the sermon!–John Rough suddenly looks at John Knox in the eye and says to him, “Brother, ye shall not be offended albeit that I speak unto you that which I have in charge, even from all those who are here present, which is this: In the name of God and of His Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of those that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you that you refuse not this holy vocation, but that you take upon you this public office and charge of preaching, even as you look to avoid God's displeasure and desire that He shall multiply His graces with you.”

Imagine that! In the middle of a sermon, in the middle of morning worship, John Rough gives this solemn charge to John Knox. Apparently the story is that he got up and ran from the building in tears, half frightened of what had occurred and half frightened that it just might be true, and that if he denies it that God's judgment may well be upon him. You know the story. And he obeyed that call to his dying day.

Well, something like that Paul is saying to Timothy: Look, do you remember that occasion? Don't ever forget it. Don't ever forget the solemnity of that occasion.

III. Hold on to the faith.
The third thing that he says to Timothy is in verse 19: hold on to the faith. —“Keeping faith (verse 19). Now, there's a problem here of interpretation. Does Paul mean, when he says ‘keeping faith’, something like this: “Timothy, I want you to hold on to the corpus of truth that we call the faith.” You know, hold on to the doctrines of the gospel; hold on to the fundamental beliefs of the Christian church–something like that. Or, is Paul saying to Timothy, “No, that's not quite what I'm saying. I'm saying to you, I want you to keep on believing. I want you to keep on trusting. I want you to keep persevering in the faith.” One is objective, the other is subjective. One is a faith that's out there: one is a faith that is in here in my heart. Which is it? In the Greek, it could be both. And so let me go with both, because I think that is partly the right answer.

Hold on to the faith. Don't ever think for one minute, friends, that the faith is secure here in First Presbyterian Church no matter what; that because of the age of this church, and because of the history of this church and because of the caliber of our Session, and because of the caliber of former ministers and so on, don't ever think for one minute that the truth of faith, the doctrines of the gospel, the fundamentals of Christianity, are safe in this church forever! You've got to hold on to it! You've got to keep it. You've got to do a conscious act of maintaining that truth, and of holding on to that truth.

Do you know how long it would take for a church to lose the truth, to part company with the gospel? Do you know how long it would take? One generation, that's all. It would just take one generation. That's all. It would just take the nomination and election of a group of elders who are not committed to the truth, and in one generation's time you’d see a departure. It would just take the calling of a wrong kind of teaching elder to the pulpit of the church, and it would just take one generation. “Take heed, you that think that you stand, lest you fall!” the New Testament says.

One of our choir members gave a series of stunning lectures, twelve or more lectures here in the church just a few months ago, the gist of which was that in our own church–not First Presbyterian Church, but in our own denomination–yes, in our own denomination, that even something as crucial and as fundamental as justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone is under attack. Do you understand that? Do you believe that? I can't believe it! I don't want to believe that! In a church like the Presbyterian Church in America, barely thirty-plus years old, and that something as crucial, and as fundamental and as foundational as justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone: that we're saved not by our works, not by our merits, not by baptism, not by frequency of the Lord's Supper, not by the cultures of worship–but by empty hands reaching out and grasping Christ offered to us in the gospel. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” And that that truth, my friends, is under attack! Yes! That truth is being called into question. That the very understanding of something as basic as justification by faith alone as taught, say, by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, that Luther got it all wrong! And now do you see how relevant Paul's words to Timothy are? “Hold on to the faith.”

You elders, you ruling elders, given such a solemn charge and entrustment, hold on to that faith! Love it, cherish it! Hide it within your hearts! Talk about it all the time; defend it with all your might.

Some of you have been reading A.B. Bruce's book The Training of the Twelve. I spied somebody reading that book here in the church just a few months ago. Maybe it was a set book in a Bible study somewhere. It's a wonderful book. Six hundred pages, I think, on the training of the twelve disciples, by A.B. Bruce. It's been in print ever since it was first published in the last century. There isn't a shred of error, I think, in the entire book. It's a wonderful book, I commend it to you. I commend it to your reading. But, do you know, a few years after writing that book, A.B. Bruce denied the deity of Jesus Christ? Do you know that A.B. Bruce died thinking that prayer was entirely a vain thing? Do you know that the man died denying the fundamentals of the gospel? Hold on to the faith, my friend. Hold on to the faith; keep believing in that trust, keep trusting in that truth. Keep persevering in that truth.

IV. Maintain a good conscience.
The fourth thing that he says to Timothy is “maintain a good conscience.” Isn't that interesting? Maintain a good conscience, keeping faith and a good conscience. He's already mentioned conscience in verse five, talks about a good conscience. A conscience is that moral arbiter inside, in the depths of your being, that tells you whether something is right or wrong, that shows you which circumstance, which behavior pattern God approves of and disapproves of. And you know, there isn't a man in this world, as Calvin says in his Institutes, “there isn't a person in this world so degraded that he isn't occasionally dragged before the tribunal of God.” A good conscience will be your friend. A good conscience will enable you to sleep at night. Now, we talk, don't we, about the ‘sleep of the just’ with a good conscience. A bad conscience will keep you awake. A bad conscience is a terrible thing. Work at that good conscience, Paul is saying to Timothy. Isn't that interesting that he put it that way?

V. Note the shipwreck of others.
Then fifthly and finally, he says to Timothy, note the shipwreck of others. One of the things that I hear from time to time, and I hear it more often than I care to hear it, is zealous seminary students of mine who go through seminary and graduate, and two, three, four years down the line you hear of their catastrophic fall. Some moral lapse, and they’re out of the ministry, and even in some cases their very profession of Christianity is called into question. Paul is talking here about two men, Hymenaeus and Alexander, who made shipwreck of their faith.

My wife yesterday was at a funeral. She's over in Belfast. She was at a funeral of a friend of mine, a member of the church that I was in in Belfast. She was a hundred years old. She’d had a telegram from the Queen (which you folk don't get, of course, but you do if you live in Britain–if you live to a hundred, that is). And she died this week. The first book I ever wrote, I dedicated it to her. She was a wonderful, godly, godly woman. I remember her telling me–and imagine this!–you know, of course, that the Titanic was built in Belfast (well, if you don't, you do now!)–it was built in the docks in Belfast. And I remember her telling me she saw the Titanic being launched. Imagine that! Not the journey from Southampton that went over to France and then on its journey to the bottom of the ocean, not that part of the journey, but the journey that went from Belfast, I think to Liverpool, and then to Southampton. She saw it being launched. Everybody knows what happens to the Titanic. It's at the bottom of the ocean.

Some of you have read the book, Longitude, by Dava Sobel. You've seen it in the bookstores in airports, and you've thought about buying it and reading it. It's a wonderful read. Longitude. It's about the story of Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovel, who, in October 22, 1707, was in charge of a convoy of British naval ships making its way back from Gibraltar (southern Spain) to the south coast of England. And it was a foggy, cloudy night–and this was the day before the invention, the discovery of the navigational chronometer, before the invention of that little gizmo. There was a young midshipman. He’d done his own calculations, and he went to the Admiral and said, “Sir, I think you've got it wrong, and actually we are dangerously close to the Scilly Isles, and the rocks that we will crash into, unless we alter course.” And the Admiral had that midshipman hung, there on the spot, for mutiny. The young man turned out to be right. And those ships went to the bottom of the English Channel. Two thousand lives were lost. Shipwreck. And Paul is saying to Timothy, “Timothy, when you look out there you’ll see men and women who make shipwreck of their lives. Let them be as a warning beacon to you. Let them be as a warning beacon to you, that you might persevere in the charge that has been given to you.”

Christian, whoever you may be, this morning, believer in Jesus Christ, persevere! Holding on to the faith, right to the very end. Let's pray together.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You now for your words, for this charge of Paul to Timothy. We pray that we might hide it within our hearts, that we might not sin against You. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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