1 Timothy 4:12,
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
When it comes to youth, we sinners are prone to royally mess things up. Some of us unduly celebrate youth, while others among us unduly despise it.
For many in today’s cultural mainstream, youth is an endless fascination. Few things are more feared than aging. Our youth culture stands ready to make much of the Justin Beibers and Taylor Swifts, but before long we’ll deem them too old to retain their former fame. Meanwhile, we’re eying the next crop of celebrity youths.
But for others of us, the exact opposite mentality pervades. We have cultivated a subtle contempt for youth — or at least a great pessimism about young adults.
Which mentality is in reaction to which is hard to tell. The two extremes likely have grown up together.
Young adults can be quick to recognize the growing irrelevance of the older generation, and fast to forget the wisdom and experience to be gleaned. And the aging generation can be quick to forget what it was like to be young, and inclined to be cynical toward, and cast aspersions on, the younger adults of an emerging generation. Only in the Christian gospel is there a remedy potent enough to relieve the tension.
Enter Young Timothy
Almost two millennia ago, Timothy found himself in an age-related tension. As a young adult, in his late twenties to mid thirties, Timothy had been sent by the apostle Paul to the city of Ephesus to combat growing disunity and doctrinal disease in a well established church.
When we read and memorize and recite 1 Timothy 4:12, it’s helpful to keep this situation in mind. Paul didn’t leave a kid alone in Ephesus to lead the church. “Youth” for Timothy means not childhood, or even adolescence, but young adulthood. The term can extend even up to the age of forty. Timothy was a man, just a younger man rather than an older one. Let’s be careful not to use this verse to pressure children into being something they’re not — at least not yet.
Don’t Despise the Young
Into this situation, with some in the aging Ephesian church seemingly suspicious of such youth, Paul charges Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth…”
Note that there’s two parts to this instruction: Timothy’s part and the church’s. Timothy the twenty-something (or thirty-something) should not give the older generation any good reason to despise his youth through some immaturity and childishness on his part. And the church’s part, as they read the aging apostle’s letter over young Timothy’s shoulder, is to acknowledge that young adulthood is no evil, or negativity, and that in Christ they should expect the best from Timothy, even if their experience of other youths has made them suspicious.
Timothy desperately needs the older adults in the church, and they desperately need younger adults like Timothy. They are better together. Younger adults who marginalize the older soon find themselves walking into the same errors that previous generations have. And older adults marginalizing the younger soon find their churches and spiritual legacies dying with them, having neglected to winsomely complete the gospel transfer to the next generation.
Set an Example
Not only should Timothy avoid the kinds of immaturity that encourage older adults to despise his youth, but he should “set the believers an example…” Don’t hear “setting an example” as a snooty thing. Paul’s not hoping that Timothy will embarrass the aging by feigning a spiritual sophistication that surpasses them and thus puts them in their place. Rather, he’s simply charging young Timothy to be the church leader that he’s appointed him to be. As 1 Peter 5:3 shows, at the heart of official church leadership is not world-class intelligence or manners, but normal, healthy Christianity, “being examples to the flock.”
Speech, Conduct, Love, Faith, Purity
Timothy’s example will have public and private dimensions. It’s to be a holistic maturity — “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” What he says matters, and how he says it. How he acts matters, and why he acts the way he does. Speech and conduct encompass the whole of Timothy’s public life as a church leader.
But it’s not only the public life that matters. Of even greater importance is the private. Faith and love are a summary for the whole of the Christian’s inner life. And for a young man, Paul highlights purity as well.
There are particular sins to which younger men are especially susceptible, as there are particular temptations for older men, and younger and older women (Titus 2:2–6). Elsewhere Paul tells Timothy to “flee youthful passions” (2 Timothy 2:22). Here Paul’s commendation of purity likely means both uncompromised sexual purity as well as purity of motive and ambition in leadership.
A Youth Who Saves All Ages
Here’s one final, but important, observation from the context in 1 Timothy 4. Paul has sent young Timothy among the Ephesians as a minister of the gospel. The ultimate reason that young Timothy can stand confidently among older adults as their leader and teacher is that his feet rest not on his own experience or skill, but firmly on the gospel of Jesus. It is not himself that Timothy is to emphasize, but another youth — the God-man, who was about Timothy’s age when he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) and died on Calvary’s tree to be “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). Jesus is the youth who rose again in triumph and now is seated at his Father’s right hand.
In a day filled with undue celebration of and undue cynicism toward young adults, we do well to keep our lives and teaching ruthlessly oriented on this Jesus, who died and rose for young and old.
1. What are at least two errors we commonly make toward youth?
2. What does it mean to “set an example?”
3. What is the ultimate reason that young Timothy can stand confidently among older adults?