Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:9-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/26/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 5:9-16
“Taken into the Number”
In today’s passage, we continue to think about honoring the widows who are really widows. Last week we saw that the widows we are to particularly support as a church are those Christian widows who are truly destitute. They need to be all alone in terms of not having any family to take care of them. They also need to be Christians who were looking to God for help. These are the widows that the church needs to prioritize in terms of its help and care.
As we come to today’s passage, we delve deeper into the topic of honoring certain widows. Here we have further qualifications of widows who are to be enrolled on some official list. These extended qualifications and the details herein suggest that these widows are being added to a list not only to be supported, but also to be officially recognized in a position of some service or ministry. All of this reminds us that while we desire to honor such widows, these widows themselves are a blessing from God to his church. And so today we’ll be thinking both of this idea of a list of widows along with the description and qualifications of such widows for this list.
Beginning then in verse 9, it begins by speaking of taking certain widows “into the number.” It goes on to list a number of qualifications for these widows to be able to be on this list. This immediately makes us ask a question: what is this list for? What does this list of widows represent? An initial thought might be to assume that it is simply a list of which widows the church would provide support. And yet, as we keep reading, it seems hard to assume that this is only a list of support. Many have thought this to describe some order or number of widows who would provide some service or ministry in the church. In turn, these same widows would of course also be supported by the church. To clarify, this would be a sort of retirement ministry for these widows, not necessarily some full-time job. But let me explain why the text would point us in this direction, though I do admit that it is not explicitly stated.
First off, you have the detailed qualifications here both of age and godly maturity and fruit. That suggests in part that we are looking at certain qualifications for someone who will then serve in the church in ways that match up with those qualifications. In other words, if for example, you wanted widows on this list to serve in areas of church hospitality and caring for orphans, then the qualifications listed here would speak to their ability to do that. So, the qualifications are at least suggestive that there is some job duty being presumed here. This idea is further strengthened when you see some of the similarities in this list of qualifications with those given for the officers of the church in chapter 3. Such qualifications suggest a specific service or role that the widows on the list might be providing. Similarly, you wouldn’t think that the church would require these qualifications to any Christian widow in the church who may need financial help from time to time. Yet, these qualifications make sense if this list is more than just who needs financial support in the church.
Second, you have the concern with the younger widows. Paul’s presents two concerns with having younger widows on this list. First, they might want to remarry. Second, they might become idle which could encourage gossip or being a busy body. Instead, Paul wants the younger to remarry and be about the typical calling that a wife and mother does; that’s verse 14. He says, “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” In other words, Paul thinks that a younger widow isn’t ready to retire from the normal work of a woman in those days. This suggests that whatever role the widows on this list play, it is something that would be a new calling or vocation for them compared to what the typical women would be doing.
A third reason why this list is likely more than just a financial support list, is what we find in verse 12. Evidently, if you as a widow are enrolled in this number, but then later want to remarry, you’d be doing something wrong. The pew Bible says they’d be casting off their first faith, which almost makes it sound like they are rejecting their Christian faith. Though, several translations translate the word “faith” here as pledge. For example, the NASB translates this as them setting “aside their previous pledge.” The idea then is likely that to be enrolled on this list, the widows would have to commit to not remarry, instead they’d be signed up to be serving the Lord Jesus in their commitment to singleness. This is why verse 11 would say that if after joining the number they wanted to remarry, it would be them growing wanton against Christ. It means that they are changing their minds about their pledge to serve Christ in singleness. To clarify, Paul’s not saying that it is wrong for a widow to remarry. In fact, he advocates the younger widows to remarry. But he also acknowledges that there comes a certain point when an older woman likely is not going to want to remarry but would rather commit the rest of her life to serving Jesus without the distraction of a husband. This passage would see this as an honorable calling for those who meet the qualifications: let us honor widows who are really widows!
This understanding of the list is confirmed in history as well. We have church history records as early as around 200 AD that shows that they had some kind of order of widows already at that time. Likely this reflects a similar practice going on when Paul wrote this letter to Timothy. Tertullian, for example, writes around 204 AD of such an order of widows. He speaks of how such widows are able to give counsel and comfort in the church since they have “travelled down the whole course of probation whereby a female can be tested” (On The Veiling of Virgins, IX). Tertullian affirms here that this is a position of honor for these widows. Similarly, we see other church history records that would speak of such widows doing various ministry items such as prayer and fasting, visiting the sick, instructing women, etc. So, church history records an order of widows that likely is what is being referenced here in 1 Timothy.
So, then, that’s a little about this official list of widows. Let us now turn to consider the specific qualifications mentioned here to be enrolled on this list. We find this in verses 9-10. The first qualification is one of age. They must be sixty or older. We’ll talk more about the younger widows next week and the work and vocation described here for them. We already discussed some of the logic for the age requirement. But I might add, that at this time this would have been a typical age for retirement. Also, in the matter of sexual urges this would have been understood to be an age at which the physical passions would be significantly reduced and thus making it less likely for a woman to want to remarry at that age. And so, a widow of this age finds herself in a suitable context for her to use her singleness in retirement as a way to wholeheartedly serve the Lord. The last thing I’ll say about the age requirement, is that in this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, here we have yet another area where the Roman Catholic church should consider reforming. They have created an order of nuns, which arguably has historically developed out of this order of widows; an order requiring vows of celibacy. Yet, as you know, they don’t require you to be 60 years old to join. Paul would seem to speak against such here.
The rest of the qualifications mentioned are focused on how the widow conducted herself throughout her life as a Christian. The first of these qualifications is that she had been the wife of one husband, verse 9. The Greek here is the female equivalent of what we found for men when talking about elders and deacons in chapter 3, verses 2 and 12. There the men had to literally be a one-woman man. Here, the widow needed to have to be a one-man woman. And so how we understood this language for the men in chapter 3 surely has to inform how we understand the language here for widows. I refer you back to my sermon when dealing with this for elders for the details. But what we concluded for elders is that this was about marital faithfulness. It wouldn’t preclude an elder from serving if he had two separate marriages at different times, like if his first wife died and then he subsequently remarried. So, the same is surely true here too. Surely, the requirement here is that this widow had lived in marital faithfulness when she was married. It’s surely not saying she had to have only been married once. The question to ask is if this Christian widow has demonstrated a life of marital faithfulness in whatever marriages she has been in. If so, that serves as part of her track record that would warrant having her be in this position of honor as part of this number or order of widows in the church.
The next requirement is listed in verse 10. It’s requires that she is “well reported for good works.” This is somewhat similar to the idea of being above reproach required for elders and deacons in chapter 3, in that her reputation is considered. Here, though, this reputation is focused on the deeds she’s accomplished. It then mentions five specific things in verse 10. I take these as examples of what a good record would look like. In other words, this requirement of that she be well reported for good works is illustrated by the five things that follow. I believe that means that this list of five things is not exhaustive nor is to be taken woodenly. Rather, this gives a guideline of the kinds of things we should look for in such a widow who would be put on this honor roll.
So, the first of these five items is that she has brought up children. Again, this looks to the ordinary calling and vocation of a married woman. She would typically bear children and then manage them. How she has done in that regard would be helpful in considering putting her on some official list that may involve similar kinds of duties. Such widows have historically helped the church care for orphans, for example. Such a widow might also be able to help the younger woman with children in advice on parenting. And so, this qualification is similar to how the elder or deacon must have managed their house and children well. Given that caring for children would have the been typical primary job duty for a wife, this really is looking to how well she’s managed the primary responsibility given her in her life. Has she been successful in her daily calling?
The second of these five items is if she has lodged strangers. In other words, this looks to hospitality. The widow to be honored in putting on such a list should be one who has a track record of hospitality. Remember, when we talked in chapter 3 about hospitality, we said it was literally about loving and receiving strangers. This widow is someone who has done this even while she was married with a family. We know that when a family has visitors come and either stay with them or have them over for dinner, most of the burden tends to fall on the wife. So, to be honored on this list, the widow was to have shown such grace of hospitality. I think of how Jesus criticized the scribes for taking advantage of widow’s hospitality, eating them out of house and home. That was bad for the scribes to do, but it does reflect a common practice that it would often be such widows who open up their homes and show hospitality to traveling ministers or other guests passing through the church.
The third item of these five is if she washed the feet of saints. This looks to her service, specifically her humble service. Again, I think this shows that this list is more a set of examples of how a woman might demonstrate a good track record, than some strict literal checklist. Because surely this is one that could find it’s expression in different ways. In most circles, it was the job of servants not wives to wash the feet of guests. But, we remember how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an example to them to follow. Jesus’ example was surely not to be only about washing feet. It was about the sacrificial and humble service we are to show to our fellow Christians. Has this widow demonstrated this either through literal feet washing or through equivalent experience? Christians ought to follow Christ in humbly serving one another.
The fourth item of these five is if she has relieved the afflicted. Here we consider if she has shown mercy and compassion. Has she shown a desire to help those in the midst of trial and trouble by reaching out to them and helping them? Again, this would be Religion 101 according to James (1:27). It’s a wonderful thing to be able to honor someone like this with help when they need help, to someone who herself has helped others when they have needed help! And of course, we could imagine that such a widow enrolled in such an order might be very useful to continue to show such mercy and aid on behalf of the church.
The fifth and final item it mentions is if she has diligently followed every good work. Here it’s the quality of how she’s done her good works that is being highlight. She is diligent in them. She is devoted to them. This is describing someone who put themselves into their work. In other words, you can count on this woman to get the job done because she’s lived a life of doing just that. She’s reliable. She’s responsible. Because she “owns” the work that is before her, and does a good job.
And so, we’ve surveyed the qualifications given here in order to put such a widow on this list of widows to honor. When you think about the women described by these qualifications, what a blessing it would be to a church to have someone like this in the church, and serving in the church. It would be an honor to honor someone like this, who met these qualifications. What a blessing to have such women in the church.
Now, as is probably obvious by now, our church and most protestant churches today do not have any official list of widows like this. It doesn’t appear to be biblically demanded that we have to have such a list. Surely, it is an obligation to care for widows in the church who have need for such care. Our denomination, and our church included, takes that obligation very seriously. It seems hard to say that we are being commanded by scripture to have some official order of widows as we’ve discussed today and seen in history. Arguably, our culture and the needs of widows makes an official order of less need. That being said, I would not be opposed to having such an order of widows in the church.
Nonetheless, what we do have in the church are various godly widows and others who are simply retired who now have time, availability, and giftings to serve in the church. These are people who have served the Lord alongside their normal vocations for many years, and now find themselves with more time and availability to serve in the church. It can come at the death of a spouse, or at retirement, or some other similar big life event. But there are situations that mature Christians might find themselves in where they are able to serve the church. It will be for the church, especially through its leadership, to look to make use of such people. It will be an honor to that person as they have increased ways to serve. And it is an honor for us to honor such and to be blessed by such service among us.
In tying this all together with the gospel today, I want us to remember why the church has such people in its midst. Why does God bring such honorable widows or others who are willing and able to serve in the church? I point to the ascension of Jesus Christ as referenced in Ephesians 4:8. After Jesus’ triumph on the cross, he ascended up into heaven. And Ephesians goes on there to say that he then gave gifts to men. He then goes on to reference different Christians with different gifts for service. Surely, such widows and other worthy retired Christians who can serve with their additional time are a gift from Christ. Surely, it is something our Lord gives us as his people for our growth and for our good. It is part of his care for us as his church. So as those who trust in God’s grace through faith in Jesus, remember how he provides for our needs. He even includes people like the dear mothers of the faith whose beloved husband of many years has died. He includes them in the church to be serving and blessing his people. Will you not honor such a mother in the Lord? If you would honor your Lord, let us honor such. And let us praise God for providing such dear saints in our midst.
Saints of God, the retirement years can provide great opportunity for you to serve all the more in the church. As you are able, do so by the grace of God and for his glory. And to the rest of us, we remember these qualifications listed her looked to how the widows conducted themselves as Christians in their younger years. Let us look by grace to live right now in such a worthy way, that later in life people would look back on our labors and see such a record of good works. God be praised who provides this family of believers to even now look to cultivate these traits in one another. Let us then be about this perfecting of the saints until we too ascend up to meet our Lord in the air at the day of his coming! Amen!
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.