Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/8/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
“Not a Novice”
Today is our last day on this passage about the qualifications of elders. We conclude our study of this passage by looking at verse 6’s qualification that the man must not be a novice. I’ll begin then with an analogy. In my garden this year I grew both summer and winter squash. With summer squash you pick them when the fruit are young. You eat them right away because at that point the skins are thin and thus they don’t have a long shelf life. But with winter squash you let the fruit age much longer on the vine. So, when you finally pick a summer squash you don’t have to eat them right away. At that point they have very thick skin and thus have a very long shelf life. For the winter squash, the extra age on the vine gives them added protection. Well, I hope you see my analogy here. A more mature squash has greater protection from the bad things that would ruin a squash. Well, there’s a truth there for Christians too. The longer someone has been a Christian, should be giving that Christian time to mature. That Christian maturity should ordinarily offer at least some protection from the temptations that would afflict a Christian. This is true in general for Christians, and Paul says that means we should not promote Christians to the ordained offices who are young Christians. This is our topic for today.
So, let’s begin then by defining this term of novice in verse 7. This word literally refers to something newly planted. In other words, this is plant imagery being used here metaphorically to refer to a new convert to Christianity. If you know what the word neophyte means, that’s actually the Greek word used here: neophytos. A neophyte in English is just what I said, a new convert to Christianity. And so, to clarify, what we are talking about is spiritual age and maturity. We are not saying you have to be of a certain physical age or physical maturity in order to be an elder in the church. Not only does this passage not speak of physical age, we also know from 1 Timothy 4:12 that Timothy himself was a younger man physically, but Paul said that no one should despise Timothy because of his age.
And so, when talking about being a novice, we are talking about people who are new to the Christian faith. That is clearly a concept in Scripture. We can think of passages that talk about what it is like to be young in the faith. For example, Hebrews 5:12 says that people who are young in the faith will need the milk and not solid food. What it means there is that the young Christian will need to begin in their learning about God with basic and elementary doctrines of the Bible. But as they grow, they can then start to take in more advanced doctrines of the Bible. Similarly, we see 1 Corinthians 3:1 describe new Christians as being more concerned with the flesh and less concerned with the spiritual. That description is not a very positive description, of course. But there is a truth there. A young Christian is still growing to properly know the way of the Lord versus the way of the world. So, there are passages like these two that speak of the idea of being young in the faith. And in passages like these you can see very clearly that we should desire to be growing and maturing spiritually. We should not be content to be like newborns in terms of our Christian maturity.
Okay, so this verses gets us to think about spiritual maturity, and as I mentioned the Greek word here uses plant imagery. I think that is helpful imagery because there is a lot in the Bible that speaks of spiritual maturity and growth in terms of such imagery. For example, you have Jesus’ parable of the sower. There it talks about the seed being God’s Word and that depending on the type of soil which it lands into will either produce good or bad results. The goal mentioned in that parable is that the seed in the right soil would ultimately bear much fruit. And so, think about this idea of Christian growth in terms of plants. On the one hand, there are certain things you need to do to grow a plant and have it bear fruit. It needs to be in the right soil, and you’ll need to give it water and sun and maybe some plant food. And yet even if you do all those things and give it all the right amount of those things, you will still need something called “time.” For plants, God gives the growth over time. As James 5:7 says, the patient farmer will have to wait for the precious harvest to come over time.
Again, all this applies to our spiritual maturity. There are certainly things we should do to help our growth. We should be investing ourselves into the ministry of the church. We should see ourselves as the disciples that we are called in the Bible. It’s the ministry of the church that is focused on discipling disciples. If we want to grow over time as Christians, we should put ourselves in the place where God typically grows Christians. God uses his church and the tools he gives the church for our growth. The church also has different people with different spiritual gifts that help our growth. And the church is where the Word is taught and proclaimed, where the saints pray with and for one another, and where the sacraments are administered. These are key for our growth. They are like the planting and the watering that we just mentioned. But at the end of the day, there is still “time” needed for our growth. We can’t ultimately rush it. Christians can be involved in various things that will aid our growth. But ultimately God is the one who brings the growth and he ordinarily does that over time. Patience will be needed in the process.
I’ve been making the application to being involved in the life of the church so we can pursue Christian growth in the way we are told. But a related application that comes here is to examine your Christian growth or potentially lack there of. If you have been a Christian for a long time, if you are not technically a neophyte on paper, have you experienced growth? If so, praise God for that, and keep striving to use the means of grace to continue your growth. But if you examine yourself and see very little growth, I think that should cause you some alarm. That Hebrews passage I mentioned was chiding the people for still needing the milk of the Word like newborns, when they should have been more mature by then. A Christian could be an immature Christian long after they should be. If you do this self-examination and find yourself stunted or stalled in your spiritual growth, then I would urge you to address this. Just like if a parent would be concerned if their baby wasn’t growing properly, may you too take your spiritual growth seriously.
Please don’t misunderstand me. No one is perfect. Nor is our Christian growth ultimately up to us. No, we need the grace of God to grow. All our growth and maturity is credited to him. But the Scripture does speak of things we ought to be doing for our growth. As you examine yourself, ask if you are doing those things. If you are not, then repent and begin to do so. If you are doing those things and still not sure why you are not growing as you should, then seek Godly counsel. Ask an elder or a pastor to help you look at your life. Desire to grow and seek out that growth, in the way the Bible calls us to seek it out.
Let’s turn now in our second point and begin to address the relationship between being a young Christian and pride. Pride of course is not a good thing. Scripture calls us towards humility. Pride on the other hand is the root of so many sins. Pride was even behind the first sin, when Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it was after Satan said that if she ate it she would become wise like God. Pride can get us in trouble in so many ways. Ultimately, it is a way to exalt ourselves instead of God.
And so, verse 6 speaks of how a new convert won’t make a good elder because they could end up puffed up with pride. How is being a neophyte connected to pride? Well, a general observation is to remember the verse that says in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that knowledge puffs up. This is very common to see in new converts. Here they have come to know the truth of the gospel and believe it. They are so energized and full of zeal. They are just so excited to live out their new faith. But then that zeal along with their immaturity can sometimes begin to express some pride that has come from a puffing up from their new-found knowledge. When they tell a non-Christian about Jesus, they might come off a bit overbearing or arrogant if the person won’t receive the faith like they recently did. Or even to another Christian they might come off in a similar way if the new Christian senses that the other Christian doesn’t have quite the zeal or energy that they do. This new Christian might end up pridefully looking down on both. Experience shows us that this is a common temptation for the new convert. By analogy, we see something similar for those who are new to reformed theology. They come into this new knowledge of the doctrines of grace from the Scripture and they get full of zeal. But too often at this early stage, they also begin to struggle with theological pride. This is the reason for the label of the “cage stage Calvinist”. Both new converts to Christianity and new converts from reformed theology can often have trouble distinguishing between godly zeal and sinful pride.
That all being said, this verse doesn’t deal with this pride in terms of knowledge. I used the knowledge point more as an example of a new convert struggling with pride. I suspect that’s an example you can recognize and relate to. But verse 6 doesn’t focus on knowledge as the reason for the pride. It simply acknowledges that a new Christian might be prone to pride if they are given the office of elder. They can think too highly of themselves because of the office and authority they are given. In other words, there it’s not the knowledge that puffs up. There it is the position and probably the power that puffs up. Scripture shows examples of people who love and crave position and power and recognition. For example, look at Matthew 23 and see how Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for this lust. They loved the greetings and the titles and the positions, but Jesus said that instead they needed humility. Matthew 23:12, “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And so, this passage says a new convert could be prideful for the power and position they are given if made an elder. I also gave the example of how a new convert could be prideful based on the new knowledge that they came into. These are both real temptations. So, let me point out the obvious here. A more mature Christian could also feasibly fall prey to these same temptations. A more mature Christian is not immune to the fact that knowledge and position can puff up. But surely the point here is that a less mature Christian will be more prone to these temptations. In other words, Christian growth does count for something. Sanctification is a biblical idea. There should be growth going on for a Christian, such that a newer Christian would generally struggle more than others with a promotion to the office of elder. So, this is the key point and application here. Growth should bring humility. You should grow in your humility so that you are less inclined to give in to the temptation of pride. And using our growth analogy, this is something that time generally brings. It has to be grown by God over time as that person lives as a disciple of Christ. You can’t rush it. Don’t rush it. Wait to pick someone as an elder after they’ve had time to mature. And again, we can extend this application to us all. See that Christian maturity should bring growth in humility. And so, as we examine ourselves, we can ask ourselves if we have the humility of a seasoned Christian?
Our last point for today is to consider this part of the verse that talks about the condemnation of the devil. This is the crowning point and concern here. It says that if the new Christian gets the office of elder and then get puffed up in pride, the result would be that they fall into the condemnation of the devil. Let’s think about this condemnation of the devil.
Unfortunately, this is a place where the Greek is ambiguous, at least to us modern day translators. Is the Devil the one condemning or being condemned in this verse? Our pew bible would have you think the Devil is the one being condemned based on how it translates it with the word “same”. However, you’ll notice that it puts “same” in italics which is the NKJV’s way of telling you that this word is not actually there in the Greek. The translators supplied it in the English as their interpretation of what the Greek is getting at. Well, that is option 1 and may be the best interpretation. In other words, option 1 is that the new convert may end up being condemned by God along with Satan if he falls into this kind of pride. Option 2, however, understands the Devil as the one doing the condemning. In other words, this sees the Devil as the one pointing the finger at the new convert who falls into this kind of pride.
I lean slightly toward option 1. But the grammar could go either way. And frankly, both are biblical truths. So, let me comment on both options very briefly. In terms of option 1, we know how this works to be condemned along with the Devil. That’s how all this bad started out. Remember in the Garden, when we fell into sin with our first parents, not only were Adam and Eve cursed by God, but so was Satan. Since the beginning, fallen man has had to share in God’s condemnation of the Devil. You would think us humans would learn our lesson. It’s like how parents tell their kids to stop hanging out with the bad kids because they are going to be a bad influence and pull you down. Well, pride is the Devil’s toy and he will gladly share it with you. But if you go down that path, it ends in condemnation. Remember, Revelation 20:10 has the devil ending in the final judgment of the lake of fire. That’s not where we want to end up.
As for option 2, we remember that Revelation 12:10 calls the Devil the accuser. Remember how we see him doing that back with Job too. Satan loves to accuse the saints. That’s actually what the word “devil” even means. It means accuser or slanderer. So, recognize the schemes of the Devil. He’s out to tempt you and then accuse you afterwards. But this is part of Christian maturity. We should be growing to better recognize the enemy’s tactics. We should be becoming better at spotting and then fighting against his temptations. Pride is certainly something he would try to work within us.
In both of these options, one overarching truth stands out. If a brother falls into this trap, it is bad for him individually. Both options 1 and 2 are something bad for the new convert who falls into this trap of pride. When we’ve been going through these elder qualifications a lot of our concern is to safeguard the church. That’s still true here today. But this also verse reminds us that it is especially bad for the brother. Don’t do this to a new Christian! Don’t put them in such a place! Don’t set them up to fail.
Brothers and sisters, today we’ve been reminded of the importance of growing in maturity before taking on an office of leadership in Christ’s church. There is both wisdom and righteousness in this. And so, we are not surprised to see even this demonstrated in our Lord. Yes, though Jesus is God come in the flesh, he demonstrated even this notion of patient growth in his own life. Remember what we know of this in the Bible. Luke’s gospel shows us this nicely in chapters 2-3. In chapter 2 we get a snapshot of Jesus’ childhood by the scene in the temple when he was 12 years old. Already people are recognizing great insight and understanding in Jesus. Yet, there we find him in the temple asking questions and listening to the teachers. Jesus didn’t put himself in the posture of teacher at the early age. Luke chapter 2 actually ends with a further reference to Jesus increasing in wisdom and stature. So, somehow, according to his humanity, Jesus grew up in the faith. He had to learn and mature as a man of God. And so then in Luke 3 we see that Jesus finally begins his teaching ministry at the age of 30. The Word became flesh waited 30 years before starting his earthly ministry! He joined the company of the Levites who also began their ministry at age 30 (Num 4:46-47). Likewise, the patriarch Joseph first started serving Pharaoh at age 30, and David started reigning as king at that same age. These covenant children, Jesus included, grew up in the faith, and didn’t take some office until they reached a certain maturity. This is surely a principle of righteousness that you don’t take on leadership too quickly.
So then, the application for all of us today is for us to pursue Christian maturity. That’s not just an application if you want to be an elder someday. We should all seek to grow and bear much fruit. And how do we go about it? The answer I give is the answer I will always give. I will again proclaim Christ to you today. Find maturity in the one who he himself waited until age 30 in terms of his flesh before beginning his earthly ministry. Look to this Jesus for your growth and maturity. John 15:5, Jesus says if you want to bear fruit, abide in him. In other words, stick with him, stay with him, remain with him, continue with him, and you will grow. Don’t turn aside to some other sources that promises growth and maturity. Find it in Christ and in the things he supplies. One of the things he supplies according to Ephesians 4 is the leaders he raises up in the church. Ephesians 4:11-16 specifically says that Jesus gives leaders for our growth and maturity as Christians. That means you need to be at church and involved in church if you are going to benefit from that means of growth. And so, make use of the things Jesus gives for our growth. But as you grow beware of the temptation to pride to credit yourself for your growth. Instead agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:6, that it is God who gives the growth. Of course, your growth will help you to see this in humility.
In conclusion, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:22, let us not lay hands on anyone too hastily. Let us be patient farmers in this regard, giving people time to grow and mature. We don’t send children off to war. We don’t pick unripe fruit. We don’t drink wine before it comes of age. Let us not harvest a brother for the office of elder until it is the right time. God’s working to raise up new elders ordinarily takes much time. He does it through the ministry of his church where Christ reigns by his Word and Spirit. This is how he chooses to grow people for ministry positions. It may seem to take a while. We might be tempted to be impatient. But let us rejoice that he does bring the growth. He knows our needs. And when the time is right and we enjoy the harvest of new leaders, it is something of great joy. And it only reminds us of the even greater harvest that is in store for us. There is coming a day when God will determine that the time is right to harvest this world and complete this age. Then he will usher us who are his people by faith into the fruit of our eternal reward. Praise God for this grace upon grace that grows us until that time, preparing us to spend eternity with him.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.