1 Timothy 5:17-25
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality. Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep thyself pure. Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities. Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid. (vv. 17-25)
Continuing his exhortations to Timothy, Paul speaks again of elders, and here dwells on the respect due them. Those who are qualified to lead the people of God in this way and who have the responsibility of shepherding the flock of Christ should never be treated rudely or looked upon with contempt. Those who manifest particular administrative ability are to be counted worthy of double honor, or as the marginal note puts it, of “double reverence.”
While we see no scriptural authority for giving the title of “reverend” to a minister of the gospel, as is commonly done in Christendom, yet it is evident that this particular Scripture may have seemed to some to give sufficient authorization for the custom. For if the elders, who ruled well, are to be counted worthy of double reverence, then those not so distinguished are still to be revered. But it is worthy to note that, in our English Bibles at least, it is only God Himself to whom the title “reverend” is applied. In Psalm 111:9 we read, “Holy and reverend is his name.” The Hebrew word so rendered is found many times in the Old Testament, however, and is often translated “dreadful,” or “terrible.”
Charles H. Spurgeon, who himself repudiated any such title, though a worthy minister of Christ, declared that if one sought the origin of this practice he would have to go back to Roman Row in “Vanity Fair.” He used to say ironically that if one minister should designate himself as the Reverend Mr. So-and-So, k would be just as correct for others to speak of themselves as the Dreadful or Terrible.
While recognizing all this, we need to remember that those whom God honors should be honored by us, and any leader who manifests true godliness in his life and is characterized by marked ability to administer the affairs of the church of God is worthy of reverence, “especially they who labour,” Paul tells us, “in the word and doctrine.” By so speaking he makes it clear that all elders were not necessarily preachers or teachers. Some were, but this was a special gift of God. In support of what he had just written Paul cites the Old Testament Scripture, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn” (Deut. 25:4). This links with, “The labourer is worthy of his reward.” When threshing was done by oxen it would have been cruel indeed to have refused the due portion of grain to the hard-working, patient animals who were thus employed. And so as God’s servants give themselves to earnest labor on behalf of others, it is only right that such labor be recognized and they themselves respected and, where necessary, properly supported. This is a principle laid down elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 10:7), and to which God’s people may well take heed.
The next admonition has to do with charges of irregular behavior, or even of sinful actions in connection with one who is thus recognized as a servant of Christ. It is sad indeed when people thoughtlessly and often willfully spread evil stories about a servant of Christ without ever making any investigation and when others give heed to these without seeking corroboration. It is sadder still if anyone brings a charge of misconduct against an elder unless the charge is substantiated by other witnesses. Then, indeed, if the accusation is proven to be true, the office of the offender must not be allowed to shield him from blame. On the contrary, Paul writes, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” The greater one’s responsibility, the more careful he needs to be as to his personal character and behavior. No elder, however able and gifted, should attempt to shield himself from blame simply because of his office. The very fact that he serves the church in such a capacity makes him all the more accountable to live for God before the people whom he endeavors to instruct in holy things, or whom he seeks to guide.
If assemblies of God everywhere would keep these admonitions in mind, they would be saved from a great deal of sorrow and dissension. Where God’s servants are recognized as His representatives, and their ministry is properly valued and their advice followed, blessing will result for the whole church. Where a spirit of independence and insubordination prevails, and believers generally look with indifference or even contempt upon those appointed by God to have the rule over them, who must give account for their souls at the judgment seat of Christ, the results are likely to be most disastrous.
It seems difficult for many of us to keep from extremes. We are inclined to overvalue those who minister the Word of God and bear rule in the church, and to look upon them as though above all criticism. Or, where a spirit of individualism prevails, we are inclined to undervalue God’s servants and treat them somewhat as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram sought to treat Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, when they said, “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them” (Num. 16:3). They failed to recognize the fact that it is God Himself who appoints and qualifies leaders or shepherds over His flock. These should be given proper deference, not in the sense of looking upon them as a priestly class who come in between the people of God and their Lord, but rather as the expression of God’s goodness in caring for and shepherding His people as they go through the wilderness of this world.
It is a very sad thing when parents set the example before their children of belittling God’s servants by calling attention, perhaps, to mistakes in interpretation of the Word, or ridiculing certain characteristic habits on the platform or elsewhere. These things naturally lead the children to think less of those who are seeking to help them, and so make it harder to reach them with the Word. Children should be taught to look upon the elders and ministers of Christ as servants of God, whose great concern is their eternal blessing. If parents will collaborate in this instead of detracting from the usefulness of a servant of God, they will help him to accomplish more than he could otherwise.
Concerning receiving accusations against an elder without full proof, may I refer to a somewhat amusing incident that I ran across lately. In a certain church bulletin that came to my hand I read the following statement from the pastor of a little church.
He said, “I have learned that a story is being rather widely circulated that on a recent occasion I forbade my wife to attend the services of another church, which were of a highly emotional character. When she refused to obey me and attended without my permission, I went to that church and dragged her out by the hair of the head, and beat her so severely that she had to be sent to the hospital. I feel it necessary to make a statement in regard to this story. In the first place, I never forbade my wife to attend any services to which she might wish to go. I have left her at perfect liberty to do as she pleases in matters of this kind. In the second place, I did not drag her by the hair of the head from such a service, nor did I beat her when I brought her home. In the third place, she was not so badly hurt that she had to be sent to a hospital, and she is not in the hospital now. And in the fourth place, as some of you know perhaps, I have never been married, so I have no wife to whom any of these things could apply.”
It is very easy to start a false story going, and by the time it has passed through the lips of several persons it can ruin the testimony of the most devoted man of God. Mr. Moody used to say that a lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on to pursue it.
In verse 21 the Apostle lays another important charge upon Timothy, which has a wide application at all times. “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.” The expression, “the elect angels,” may cause some to wonder why these holy beings should be brought in here, but there are other Scripture passages that show that angels are learning the wisdom of God in us. They behold what is going on in the church on earth. Doubtless they rejoice when they see God’s Word being honored, and His people walking before Him in unity and in holiness of life. So the Apostle links them here with God Himself and our Lord Jesus Christ, as he charges Timothy to observe the things concerning which he has admonished him. The charge is surely not for Timothy alone, but is for all who have to do with government in the house of God here on earth. Nothing should be done out of deference to some favored few or to win the approval of certain individuals, but all should be done faithfully for the blessing of the church as a whole.
The next admonition is of great importance, particularly in days such as these in which our lot is cast, when one finds so many men going about through the country professing to be servants of Christ, perhaps representing some particular organization in which they are endeavoring to interest others in order to raise funds for the support of their work. Men like these have no right to expect to be taken into the fellowship of God’s people and given endorsement simply on their own recommendation. Only too often churches have been altogether too gullible in receiving such men without making the slightest inquiry to find out their true standing, or from whence they come. It turns out often that such men represent themselves only and the money they raise is but for their own comfort and enrichment.
So Paul lays down the definite injunction: “Lay hands suddenly on no man.” It is far better to make inquiry before taking up with a stranger than to find out afterward that he was utterly unworthy of confidence. It is quite possible to become so entangled as to be actually responsible, in measure at least, for the failures of unfaithful workers and false teachers. So the Apostle adds, “Neither be partakers of other man’s sins: keep thyself pure.”
In writing to the elect lady in his Second Epistle, John says, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (vv. 10-11). If we remembered that God holds us responsible for assisting and sustaining those who are unfaithful to His truth and whose behavior and teachings are of a subversive character, it would make us more careful to heed these words.
Verse 23 is the favorite text of practically every old drunkard who knows anything of the Scriptures. I would not dare attempt to say how many times this passage has been quoted to me by inebriates seeking to justify their indulgences in alcoholic liquor. “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” It is certainly a great mistake to take advice such as this and apply it as though spoken to everyone under all circumstances. Evidently Timothy was suffering from digestive disturbances brought about, no doubt, by the intensely alkaline water found in some parts of the lands through which he traveled. The native wines of that time, which were quite different from the wines we have today, were calculated to correct this condition, at least to some extent. So Paul prescribed a little wine, which is a far different thing to convivial drinking of intoxicating liquor. This is a prescription authorizing the use of the wine as a medicine not as a beverage. If the circumstances be the same, it is perfectly right and proper to follow the prescription, but one should be careful not to use a passage like this as license for carelessness in the use of strong drink of any kind.
Proverbs 23:31-32 says, “Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.” There can be no mistake here as to the teaching of the Word of God in regard to the use of wine as a beverage. Generally speaking, it would be better to consult a good Christian physician before acting on Paul’s advice to Timothy, lest one aggravate his symptoms instead of alleviating them.
In the closing verses of this section we have something extremely solemn. We are told that, “Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.”
These words might seem to require very little comment, and yet it is well to press them home upon our own hearts and consciences. “Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment.” That poor drunkard staggering down the street needs no one to proclaim him as a sinner. His behavior makes manifest his moral condition. His sins are open, going before to judgment. Anyone can recognize them. The licentious libertine soon bears in his body the evidence of his loose living. Men cannot indulge in pernicious habits without their very appearance advertising their guilt. Their evil behavior is manifested by every step taken; their sins are evidenced to all. And judgment falls, in measure at least, upon them even in this world, as we read in Romans 1:27, “Receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”
Others may be just as wicked and just as godless along other lines, but their sins are not of the character that affect their bodies to any great extent, and so they are able to cover them up. They often go through life hiding their wickedness under a pretense of piety, but the day will come when all their sins will be manifest. When they leave this world they will find that those sins have followed them to the judgment bar of God, and every transgression and disobedience will receive a just recompense of reward. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (Gal. 6:7-8).
We have the other side in verse 25: “The good works of some are manifest beforehand.” There are those who have abundant opportunity to do good to others, and they take advantage of it and are lavish in their efforts to bless and help their fellows. It is impossible to hide such philanthropy, however modest the individuals themselves may be who thus delight in assisting the poor and needy. They are rich in good works, and what wealth this is! Who would not like to be rich in this sense! But there are other quiet, timid souls who long to be a blessing and help to their fellows, but who are not so circumstanced that they can do all they desire along these lines. Nevertheless, they live their quiet, humble lives in the fear of the Lord, seeking to do the will of God. When the day of manifestation comes and all believers stand at the judgment seat of Christ, everything will come out, and the Lord will reward everyone according to his own works. He will give His own estimate of all that has been done for Him. Those who were not always able to carry out the desires of their hearts will hear Him say in that day, as He said to David of old, “Thou didst well that it was in thine heart” (1 Kings 8:18).
What comfort this should be to any of God’s beloved people who have felt themselves hampered all their lives because poverty and straitened circumstances kept them from doing much that it was in their hearts to accomplish for Christ! How blessed to know that He estimates everything aright, and in that day His “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord,” will be spoken to all who have sought to honor Him in this scene.