“TAKE HEED UNTO THYSELF”
A sermon preached at the ordination service
on Trinity Sunday at St. Mary’s Castle Street, Reading
by David N Samuel
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them:
for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
(I Tim 4:16).
Timothy was a young man, a native of Lystra. His father was a Greek and his mother Eunice was a pious Jewess. He was converted to the Christian faith during Paul’s first visit to Lystra. When Paul came the second time he selected Timothy as his companion, and ordained him in a solemn manner, as we have done with these young men here this morning.
Now as a young man and a minister, Timothy needed advice and instruction, which was the reason for Paul’s writing this letter and the later one to him. Here we find the Apostle giving him wise counsel and guidance. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine. Pay particular attention to these two things in this order. We all stand in need of counsel and advice. Where better can we find it than in the Word of God? And I hope therefore that what I have to say will have relevance not only for those who have been ordained here today, but for all present this morning.
First, attend to your personal life and conduct. Take heed unto thyself. That is where you must begin. Take care to live as becomes Christians, the followers of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Do not become lax and careless. How we live can either make or mar our witness. Somebody once said, “I cannot hear what you are saying, because your actions speak so loudly”. So this advice of Paul’s applies to all Christian people, but especially ministers of the Gospel. “Actions speak louder than words.” If our words are not backed up by our lives, then our work and witness will fail. How then are we to live out such lives as shall be an ornament of our profession?
The answer is, that we must live closely with our Lord and Saviour. We must be daily in communion and fellowship with Him. When Moses came down from the mountain where he had been with God, his face shone. All could see where he had been, though he was not aware of it himself. Communion with the Lord transforms.
What did the members of the Council of the Jews think before whom Peter and John appeared? They took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus. They were regarded as unlearned and ignorant men, but there was something wonderful about them. They commanded attention; they spoke with authority and power. Where did they get this authority from? They had been with Jesus. So that is the first thing. If our manner of life and conduct is to be consistent and to support what we say, we must live closely with the Lord.
Now, how can we do that? Well, for one thing we must read the Scriptures daily. Do not neglect to do this, it is the food for the soul. Man doth not live by bread only but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. If we do not feed regularly upon the Scriptures we shall not be healthy and strong spiritually.
There is a special danger here for the minister. He is always dealing with the Bible, he has to prepare sermons and addresses from it. He can fall into the way of thinking that that is enough, and so neglect his personal reading and study of it. But he must read the Scriptures for his own benefit, and for his own soul’s sake. If he does not, he will lack vitality and freshness.
And the same is true of prayer. Apart from his public duties, he must engage in personal prayer and communion with God. Without that he will be deficient in resilience and strength, and will not be able to face trials, which will inevitably come to him. Commune with your own heart, and in your chamber, and be still, Psalm 4:4. These are the words of David. He knew something about trials and tribulations, both in his own life and as the King of Israel as a public figure. And this was his answer, this was the secret of his strength. Take heed to yourself, then, in these matters or you will lack the strength and resilience that you need for your calling.
But there is another reason why you should take heed to yourself, for if you do not you will lack spiritual discernment. You will fail to see how the world is changing, and how you are in danger of changing with it. It is so easy for us to let standards slip and become like the world. I believe it is the besetting sin of the institutional churches and the Christian today. They are letting the world set the agenda, determine standards, and guide conduct. But the apostle says, Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. Unless you take heed to yourself, you will not be able to speak prophetically, and address yourself to the needs of the church. You will, unknowingly, be moulded and fashioned by the world. Only personal communion with the Lord can prevent that happening.
What did the prophet Habakkuk say? I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what the Lord will say unto me. Standards are falling in our society, they have been for some time. But this does not happen all at once. It takes place gradually, imperceptibly, little by little, so that most people are unaware of what is happening. But little by little in time becomes much. If you walk into the BBC in Langham Place, London, you will see texts of Scripture in large letters engraved upon the walls. Nation shall speak peace unto nation; Whatsoever things are true… honest… just… pure … lovely … of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. But what has happened now to the BBC? It has become the medium for transmitting to the nation what is base, vulgar, trivial and immoral. How are the mighty fallen! But it has happened gradually, so that most people have been unaware of what was happening.
Come ye yourselves apart … and rest awhile, said our Lord to the disciples, for there were many coming and going. Jesus knew what was good and necessary for his disciples. We need to spend time apart with out Lord, for only in that way shall we be able to discern the nature of the times in which we live, and to walk circumspectly. Ask God to enable you to keep close to Him and to cleanse your heart. Take heed to yourself.
Secondly, pay particular attention to the teachings of Scripture, understand the doctrines of the faith. Take heed unto the doctrine. It is necessary for a young minister to lay a foundation in this respect in his early years. That is the time to do it, the mind is supple and the memory receptive and retentive. Make a systematic study of doctrine by going through The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. This will give you a framework, and then you will be able to work out from there, and read other things, and evaluate them in the light of what you know. It is most important that you give attention to this.
But there are two caveats:
i) Do not treat your congregation as if they were theologians. Do not give them doctrine neat and undiluted. Congregations are sometimes made to suffer in this way. Read John Bunyan and see how he makes doctrine interesting. John Newton also made a good point on this subject. He said, “I treat doctrine like lumps of sugar; I do not eat them whole, I dissolve them in my tea”. And, of course, follow the example of the greatest preacher of all. Our Lord spoke of everyday things, but he wove into them the things of eternity, of salvation and the kingdom of God. He said, the kingdom of heaven is like this and like that; like treasure hid in a field, like a mustard seed, like a net, and so on. An old preacher was asked once what he thought of a sermon. He thought for a while and then he said, “There were not enough ‘likes’ in it”.
ii) Do not imagine theology comes mainly from books. They can be useful, but we do not learn the deepest things there. Martin Luther said that he learned his theology “where his temptations took him”, that is, through the testings and trials and sufferings of life. It is there we get the deep insights. So, while books are good and useful, we must not be ‘bookish’. Let our preaching be shot through with experience.
“This is the library where he keeps his books”, said Wordsworth’s maidservant to a visitor to his home in the Lake District, “but his study is out of doors”. I think there is something in that for ministers to learn from. Do not let your preaching be stuffy, but experiential, down to earth; from heaven, yes, but down to earth.
Take heed unto the doctrine then, it is very necessary in these times. Today the church is becoming decidedly non-doctrinal. The voice of the pulpit is tentative and hesitant. The trumpet gives an uncertain sound. There are basically two reasons for this. One is the triumph of liberal theology. Man has set himself over rather than under the Word of God. The scholar supposedly tells us what we may or may not believe. But man is in no such position to tell us how to judge of the things of God. The answer to such presumption is in the Book of Job. Canst thou by searching find out God? No, man must sit humbly at the feet of God and hear his Word. Nothing else will avail. And it is your duty to declare that Word. Is there a word from the Lord? People come to you to know that, and you must declare it. Today hungry sheep look and are not fed.
But there is another reason also for uncertainty and confusion in the churches. Ours is an age which tends to set aside the Bible and to rely only upon experience. Experience they regard as self-authenticating, they do not need the Word. In all this there is nothing new. At the time of the Reformation Luther encountered the Zwickau prophets. They claimed the gifts of the Spirit, and said to Luther, “What is the use of clinging so closely to the Bible? The Bible: Always the Bible: … It is by the Spirit alone we can be enlightened.” Luther, quite rightly, gave them short shrift. That spirit is abroad today, setting aside the Bible, claiming direct revelations, tongues and experiences. But it is your job to teach the Bible. Attend to doctrine. Faith and experience must be properly grounded upon Scripture. It is rather like food; we have digestive systems, but they need food. They cannot feed on air. We must feed upon the Word of God. The Spirit of God takes the Word and applies it to our souls’ need. That is the Scriptural doctrine of the Word and the Spirit. So, take heed to the doctrine.
Do not be afraid to preach a full-orbed gospel – all the doctrines of grace: predestination and election, the fall and the total depravity of man, sovereign grace, justification by faith alone, and the final perseverance of the saints. The many colours of the spectrum combined give pure light, so the many doctrines of grace give a pure gospel. Remember the testimony of Augustus Toplady. He confessed that when he began his ministry he confined his preaching to two main themes, justification and holiness. He was afraid to speak of the doctrines of grace. But later God freed him from the fear of men, and he preached the entire mystery of God. The result of the first course of action, he said, was that many were pleased, but few converted. The result of the latter was that many were angry, but many more converted. Pray for courage to declare the whole counsel of God.
Finally, Paul says to Timothy, for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. There will be a double benefit; you will be doing good to yourself and to others at the same time. As you teach the Scriptures, they will have a beneficial and edifying effect upon you, as well as on those whom you teach. You will grow in grace and knowledge of Christ. You teach yourself by teaching others. There is a principle at work here that is at work throughout society. The trader, the shopkeeper performs a service, he seeks to satisfy people’s needs, and in so doing he promotes his own good and prospers. And so the minister of the gospel, in seeking to teach others and to disseminate the saving truths of the gospel, becomes ever more firmly established and grounded in the truth. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. May that be your experience. May the Lord bless you in your work and service for him. Take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.