The Lord's Day Morning
September 12, 2004
I Timothy 4:9-10
“Savior of The World”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Turn with me to I Timothy, chapter four. We've been working our way through these so-called “pastoral letters,” these three small letters to two faithful pastors, Timothy and Titus, and to their congregations in Asia Minor. Some Jewish Christians, some Gentile Christians are part of these little folds of sheep faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. These people are persecuted; they are marginalized to some extent. They are facing great obstacles, and Paul, an apostle, an elder, a pastor, a veteran missionary/evangelist/church planter, writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to give divine direction for the priorities of these local congregations. And so in I and II Timothy and in Titus, he sets forth for us a picture of what local church life and ministry ought to be.
Now, we're going to be concentrating on verses nine and ten of I Timothy 4, but allow your eyes to sneak a peek at verses one through eight, because they set the table for what Paul is doing here. In I Timothy 4:1-5, we saw a couple of weeks ago Paul giving a warning to Timothy. Even though Paul had planted this local congregation, even though he was the pastor, the first pastor, the founding pastor, the planting pastor of this local congregation; even though a faithful man like Timothy had been set over this congregation as a minister, Paul is warning Timothy that even in his very midst there are those and will be those who will teach false doctrine and will lead some of his flock astray.
We don't know how large this church was. Was it 30 members? Was it 50 members, 70 members? We don't know. It was probably a small group somewhere in Ephesus, and Paul is saying to Timothy in the first five verses of I Timothy 4, ‘Timothy, be on the lookout. There are false teachers prowling. There are people who are going to lead your flock astray. You need to be vigilant.’
And then, if you allow your eyes to look at verses six through eight, Paul gives Timothy a bracing exhortation. Not only does he tell him to be on the lookout for false teaching and to be nourished himself in the truth of sound, biblical doctrine and teaching, he tells Timothy that he needs to pursue godliness, that he needs to strive for godliness.
We were reminded last week of Robert Murray M’Cheyne's great saying, that “my people's greatest need is my own holiness.” And so what Paul is telling Timothy, “Your people need your holiness, Timothy, so you strive after godliness; exert yourself, work out in order to grow in grace. Value godliness,” he says to Timothy in verse eight.
Now, these are two bracing exhortations. One, to say to a man who is ministering to a marginalized community under persecution, “Timothy, take courage. There's going to be division in your flock. Some of them are going to reject your ministry; they’re going to follow your enemies, and they’re going to follow your enemies right to hell, because they will follow false teaching.”
And then to say to Timothy in the midst of this, “I want you to be prepared yourself to strive after godliness. Fight all of those temptations, the discouragements, and the pressures and the stresses, and strive after godliness.” Those are two fairly rigorous words of exhortation to give to a pastor in a setting that already could be discouraging. And Paul knows that, and that's why he's waiting for us with verses nine and ten of I Timothy, chapter four.
He wants to give a word of encouragement to Timothy, and his word of encouragement is drawn from theology. In fact, he points Timothy to a piece of theology that everybody in the early church knew. You remember that in the days that Timothy was a minister, there was no single Christian church that could open up all of the New Testament and read from it. Every Christian had a Bible: that Bible was the Old Testament, and most Christians had parts of the New Testament read to them from time to time. But in Timothy's day, most Christian churches did not have the privilege of having the whole of the New Testament to be read to them.
But there were parts of the theology of the New Testament that every Christian knew, and Paul is going to quote one in verses nine and ten. They’re called “faithful sayings.” He quotes five of them in these pastoral letters. These faithful sayings were divine truths inspired by God, eventually written down and in the New Testament of every Christian, that Christians knew all over the Mediterranean world. Whether you were in Jerusalem, or whether you were up in Samaria, or on the way to Syria, or over in Asia Minor, or in Rome or North Africa or Egypt–you knew these faithful sayings. Perhaps you had memorized them like our children memorize the Catechism from youth.
And so Paul brings to bear this faithful saying as a way of encouraging Timothy. Now isn't that interesting? Paul gives a bit of theology, and he says, “Timothy, you want to be encouraged? You want to have hope in this setting? Let me take you to the truth of God's word. Let me take you to His glorious theological truth and encourage you by it.”
Before we hear this word of Paul's–of God's–to you, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We thank You that it is not only profitable for our correction, but also for our training in righteousness. We acknowledge, O God, that by Your truth we are sanctified, we are made holy; but we also acknowledge that by Your truth we are comforted and encouraged, and strengthened. So, by Your Spirit, do these things, we pray, in the reading and hearing of Your word. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God.
“(9) It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
I. We need to ask ourselves about the source of our motivation and assurance in the Christian life: Why am I doing this?
What do you think kept Timothy going in the kind of setting that he found himself in? Here he is: pastoring a church founded by an apostle, and he's still dealing with false teaching. I mean, if you’re pastoring a church that was founded by an apostle, and you’re having to deal with false teaching, it doesn't give a whole lot of hope for the rest of us, does it? And here he is, ministering to people who are persecuted. They have been persecuted, they are being persecuted, and very frankly, there's worse persecution to come. And here he is, faithfully ministering God's word, and up against obstacles and discouragements. What do you think kept a man like Timothy going? How would you like to follow Paul? You know, we sometimes feel sorry for coaches who have to follow very successful coaches. How would you like to follow Paul? It could have been discouraging.
How about ministers? How do you think ministers go on in the ministry, despite discouragements? Most of the conservative, Bible-believing churches in the United States have less than 75 people attending, and you have faithful men preaching the Bible, teaching the word of God, and very often they feel as if somehow the world is passing them by. They’re faithful in pastoring, they’re faithful in shepherding, they’re faithful in teaching and preaching and praying for their people; and yet they don't see the multitudes flocking to the truth. They don't necessarily have the “movers and shakers,” the societal and cultural influencers in their midst. What do you think keeps them going? What's the source of their hope?
And what about you? What keeps you going when you are facing the pressures and distresses, and the disappointments of the Christian life, what's the source of your hope? Where do you turn when friends have let you down; when your marriage is troubled; when your children are having difficulties; when you are facing health issues with yourself or with a loved one, that are beyond your ability to remedy and are perhaps beyond assurance of the doctors’ remedy? Where is your hope? Where do you turn?
Well, Paul comes to Timothy armed with an answer from the third of five faithful sayings. We've already mentioned two of these faithful sayings. If you were to look at I Timothy 1:15, Paul there states his first faithful saying: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And then he adds, “…of whom I am the chief.” And then, in I Timothy 3:1, he says “it's a faithful saying that the one who desires the work of an elder desires a good thing.”
And now, armed with this third faithful saying, the saying that “…we have fixed our hope on the living God who is the Saviors of all men, especially of believers,” he comes with that faithful saying to encourage Timothy, and to encourage ministers, and to encourage you. And I want to say that this is a classical example of how theology is important for the practical living of the Christian life. When this minister feels hopeless, when ministers in general feel hopeless, when you feel hopeless, where do you turn? You turn to the theology that God has given to us in His word. This is yet another reason why Paul will have said to Timothy in I Timothy 4:6-8 that you need to be nourished in sound doctrine, because when the pressures and trials of life come, God says the great encouragements that He gives come from His promises in the theology of His word.
And I'd like to point your attention to two or three things in this great passage today. The first thing I want you to see is the answer that Paul gives to the question, “What keeps us going? Where is our hope? Where do you turn in the midst of the disappointments and the stresses and the pressures and the trials of life?” And you’ll see his answer in verse ten: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God….” Paul is saying in the first place that the one life-sustaining hope that we can always count on is God Himself. Paul is saying that the source of our ability to labor and strive in the face of formidable opposition is only in God Himself, and in nothing less than God. In saying the words, “Timothy, it is for this we labor and strive,” Paul is pressing Timothy to ask himself the question: “Why am I doing what I'm doing? Why am I doing this? What motivates me to get up in the morning and keep on doing this? What motivates me to get up in the morning and minister to a congregation that Paul once pastored, and which is now riddled by doctrinal, deceitful teaching, and which is persecuted by the world? It's got problems inside, it's got problems outside; and what keeps me going?” And Paul gives him the answer: “Timothy, this is what keeps you going: your hope is in the living God. That's what keeps you going. Your hope is firmly on God Himself, and therefore nothing in this life can take that hope away, but nothing short of Him can give you that hope.”
And I want to say to you that we are often in our lives looking for our hope in something else other than God, and very often it is our prayer that God would help us to get the other thing in which our hope ultimately is. And I want to tell you that God will never answer that prayer for His people. When you pray, “Lord, help me to have the circumstance in which I will find my ultimate hope apart from You,” God will always answer that prayer to his children: No. Because God doesn't want you to have your ultimate hope in something else other than Him. He wants you to have your ultimate hope in Him. You will not have a sure and certain hope until it is in Him.
Oftentimes we pray, in difficult circumstances, “Lord God, we would have You change these circumstances so that we can have circumstances that would be productive of a living, sustained hope.” And God's answer to that is going to be, “NO!” Because living hope doesn't come from circumstances! It comes from God!
Very often we are right to pray that the Lord would be working in the midst of our circumstances, and it's certainly not wrong to pray for God to change some of those circumstances, but it will not be the change of the circumstances that begets real living, sustained, hope. That's found only in God, and it doesn't matter what the circumstances are.
And so, if we view God as the great means to give us some other hope which is certain and secure, we’ll never, ever, have a certain and a secure hope: because He's not the means, He's the end. He's not the instrument to get us to another hope which is not Him, He IS the other hope; He's the object; He's the focus; He's the goal. And Paul says to Timothy, ‘Timothy, look. This is why you’re able to get up in the morning. This is why you’re able to toil and exert yourself, because your confidence is in the living God. That's where your hope comes from.’
You know, ministers are often tempted to look for something else to put their hope in, in ministry, because ministry is difficult. It's for the long haul, and you rarely see the results of your ministry in the short term. And that's why ministers are such suckers for programs, because we want the program that is going to fulfill our hope! We want the model of ministry that's going to fulfill our hope! We want the secret strategy that's going to fulfill our hope, and it never works! Because God is the only source of living hope, sure hope, certain hope.
Paul is saying to Timothy, “The one life-sustaining hope we have is God Himself. And Timothy, that's why we do what we do. That's why we can go on, when we get up in the morning. That's why we can put one foot in front of the other and keep on going, because God Himself is our hope. And there's no opposition in the world that can thwart Him.”
II. The grand Christian hope in God realizes that He is the only Savior, for all humanity, and that He will save a multitude from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
But Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on to say something else, and you also see it in verse ten. He says that this living God is “the Savior of all men.” What Paul is saying there is that there is one Savior God, and there is one way of salvation for all of humanity, and Timothy, you've been put in the world to proclaim that. And that is very encouraging. Paul is saying to Timothy, ‘The grand Christian hope in God realizes that He is the only Savior for all humanity, and that He will save a multitude from every tribe and tongue, and people and nation.’ Paul is fixing Timothy's hope and ours on who God is. This living God, in whom our hope is — not in circumstances, but in this living God–this living God is like this, Paul is saying. He's saying, think about who it is that you serve: He's the Savior of all men.
Now, what in the world does Paul mean by that? I wish I could spend a whole sermon to tell you what he doesn't mean by that, but I knew I wouldn't have time to do that, so I've written about it in The First Epistle1this week, and you can read it on the website2, too! I did that last night, because I knew I wouldn't get through this sermon.
But let me say two things that Paul does not mean here. Paul does not mean that every human is or will be saved. He is not teaching universalism when he says that God is the Savior of all men. First of all, that would contradict the rest of the New Testament. I mean, take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 26:41, sometime. Jesus certainly did not believe that all humanity would be saved.
But secondly, it would contradict Paul for Paul to say this. Remember what Paul has just said in verse one of this chapter? He said, “Timothy, watch out. There are going to be people that are going to be led astray into doctrines of demons.” Now, Paul did not experience a moment of senile dementia from verses two to ten and forget what he had said in verse one! Paul is not saying that every last human that is alive or will live is saved. That's not what he means by saying that God is the Savior of all men.
Nor does this passage mean what some of our Arminian friends want it to mean: that God offers salvation to all men, but that only some get it because only they exercise faith. It may be true that only those who exercise faith are saved: we preach that here. But that's not what Paul is saying in this passage.
I would suggest to you that every time that Paul or any other New Testament writer says that God is the Savior of all men, or that He desires the salvation of all men, or that Christ is the Savior of the world–and those things are repeated on several occasions in the New Testament–three things are being asserted simultaneously. And in this passage Paul is asserting these things in order to give Timothy hope, to remind him why he gets up in the morning to do what he does, and he's saying it so that you will remember why you get up in the morning to do what you do.
Now, those three things are as follows:
First of all, when Paul says that God is the Savior of all men, he is saying that there is no other Savior for the whole of humanity but the one true God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now I want to say that that would have been an incredibly encouraging thing to Timothy. Here Timothy is, preaching to a small group of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, huddled in some house in Ephesus at the margins of society. This isn't some great, massive movement. It's a tiny little blip on the screen in what's going on in the Roman world. And Paul says to Timothy, ‘Timothy, when you preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ, you are telling humans the only way of salvation. The only way humans will ever know what it means to be saved is if they know the living God, who you proclaim.’ Now that's a reason to get up in the morning.
Now I know that that is not a very popular teaching in our own day and age, and the logic of today goes, “Well, people who weren't very smart, a long time ago, and who were narrow-minded, they came up with this idea that there's only one way of salvation. But we're smarter than they are now, we're more enlightened. And we realize that's mean to say, that there's only one way of salvation.” Well, let me just remind you, my friends, that when this New Testament was put together, and when Paul said these words ninety-eight percent of the world did not believe that there was one way to salvation. He spoke these words in a culture that was equally as offended by that truth as our own. Romans did not believe that there was only one way of salvation. They would have had absolutely no problem with a Christian offering a sacrifice to a Roman god in order to get along in his society, and then going right back on Sunday and worshipping Jesus. They had no problem with that. What they had a problem with was the claim that Jesus was the only way of salvation, and that is precisely what Paul is proclaiming here. He's saying, ‘Timothy, I know the world doesn't believe this. But you are a proclaimer of the truth that there's only one way into fellowship with God, because there's only one God of salvation for the whole of the human race: and He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of Israel. And your job is to proclaim Him. That's a reason to get up in the morning.’
The second thing he's saying when he uses that phrase is this: that God is not only the Savior of the Jews, but He is the Savior of the Gentiles–Gentiles from every tribe, and tongue, and people and nation. You remember that we said earlier that in the days when Paul was writing, most Christians simply had their Old Testaments, and they rightly understood that the God of Israel was the same, one and the same God as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; that the God of Israel was the triune God that they worshipped as Christians. But there were some who believed the God of Israel was, well, the God of Israel. And there was another God for the Gentiles. And so that there was perhaps one way of salvation for Israel, and another way of salvation for the rest of the world. And Paul is saying here, ‘No, the God that you proclaim, Timothy, is not only the Savior of the Jews, but also the Savior of Gentiles of every nation.’
And remember, too, that Timothy was facing a teaching that said that there were only a select few that understood secret things that really knew the one true and living God. This was one of the things that the false teachers were saying. And so Paul is saying to Timothy, God is not the Savior of some Gnostic or Judaising few: He is the Savior of all men. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, civilized and barbaric, He is the one true God.
And thirdly, he is emphasizing that there is a worldwide scope to the plan of God's redemption. You remember in the Old Testament, the dream of the prophets was that one day all the nations would come to Jerusalem to worship the one true God. And they said it in different ways. You remember the beautiful phrase, “One day the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” It's that dream that there will be a day when the world will know the one true and living God. Well, in the New Testament when it is emphasized that God is the Savior of all men, and that Christ is the Savior of the world, what is being emphasized is that there is a worldwide scope to God's redeeming plan. Not, again, that every human being is saved or will be saved. Paul makes it clear that that's not what he's saying with the very next phrase, which we’ll look at in just a moment: “…especially believers.”
Whatever you make of that, Paul is reminding you that God's salvation is received only by faith. But when he says to Timothy, “Timothy, the living God in whom you have put your hope is the only Savior of all men,” he's giving Timothy a reason for getting up in the morning. And he's giving you and me a reason for getting up in the morning, because if that truth is true, then everything else in life has to be organized around it, because there's nothing more important than that: that He is the one true God, and the only hope of salvation for all humanity.
III. God's great and gracious salvation is received only by faith, only by those who believe.
But Paul's not done, is he? Look at the end of verse ten. He has a third thing to say. He not only points us to the life-giving, life-sustaining hope, which we have only in God Himself; he not only points us to the reality of who God is: the one Savior God, and the one way of salvation for all. But he points us to the importance of saving faith in God, especially, he says, of believers.
What is Paul saying? He's saying that God's great and gracious salvation is received only by faith, only by those who believe. Now, there's some debate over the precise meaning of especially here. Does Paul use this word that we translate especially to indicate that there is a general way in which God is the Savior of all humankind, and a special way in which He is the Savior of believers? Very imminent interpreters have taken that to be Paul's meaning.
But I would like to suggest to you another understanding. Paul uses this word especially to mean that is.
Now you say, “Well, why did the translator translate it especially?” Because that Greek word can legitimately be translated especially, or it can legitimately be translated that is. Let me give you an example. I'm not just making this up. Turn to I Timothy 5:17, not but a few verses later. The same word is used: especially.
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard in the preaching and teaching….”
It's the same Greek word, and it could legitimately be translated “that is.” I could actually show you several other times that Paul uses this term in this way. In other words, what he's saying is not that the elders who do well should be considered worthy of double honor, but especially the subset of elders within that group who teach and preach. No, he's saying “the elders who rule well, that is, the same group of elders who teach and preach faithfully.” He's distinguishing their work; he's not distinguishing the group. So, the same elders.
Well, here in this passage, Paul is saying especially in the sense of that is. He's clarifying the previous phrase. And so especially indicates that God's saving work is experienced by all and only those who believe. That is, God is the Savior of all those and only those who have, do, and will believe.
What's Paul's point? Well, it's obvious. There can be no experience of God as our Savior except through faith in Him, through faith in His promises, through faith in His Son. We experience God as Savior, as our Savior, by faith. We trust in His promises. We trust in His Son, Jesus, the Messiah. Salvation is by faith. You must believe. It's not enough to go through the motions, to belong to a church, to attend services. We must believe.
And so Paul is giving Timothy hope for his ministry, and he's giving us hope for the difficulties of life, because that hope is found in the living God, but it's found only by those who trust in the living God. Do you trust in Him? Paul is saying to you today, ‘Believer, if you do, then no matter what you’re facing today, you have every reason to be full of hope.’
And he's saying to you, my friends who do not trust in Him, if you do not trust in Him, then no matter how good everything else is in your life, you have no reason to hope. Because the only reason to hope in this world is found in the living God, who is the only Savior of humanity.
Our Lord and our God, we would not walk through this world with misplaced hope, hoping in something in this life to sustain us in this life and the life to come. Grant that we would come to Christ, and find hope. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.