But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6: 11-12).
Paul wrote these words to Timothy, his disciple/student, his spiritual son. He repeatedly calls Timothy “son.” Timothy faithfully accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys, but at a certain point when Timothy was 30 or in his mid-thirties, he was appointed to supervise the church at Ephesus. The first letter was about the time he assumed those responsibilities. Timothy was not an Apostle, but he clearly was given a lot of authority by Paul, as well as these two letters of advice and encouragement in the Lord. Many of the directions given to Timothy apply to the clergy and laity of today as well, although some might be seen as Timothy-specific.
He describes to Timothy how he can be “salt and light” (Matthew 5: 13-16), and lead his church to be salt and light. Like Timothy, the Holy Spirit of God calls us and supports us as we strive to be salt and light as we follow Jesus Christ. The above passage is a three-dimensional depiction of how we as faithful Christians can be, and should be
Dimension One: The Bible is filled with virtues. In addition to this list of six virtues in 1 Timothy, there is another list of nine virtues in Galatians 5:22: Love, faith, and gentleness are found in both lists. However, in addition, the Galatians list has joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, and self-control.
Righteousness is the first virtue on the list. Righteousness is inevitably linked with holiness, and holiness is linked with God. If one is an atheist and deems themselves as a “good person” that is not the same, and no atheist would refer to himself or herself that way, as a holy person. The Lord said, “Be ye holy even as I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16, Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8) We may be starting to see that there is a vocabulary that the non-Christians do not ever use, and increasingly are omitted from the vocabulary and thoughts of Christians: Righteousness, holy, evil, sin, abomination. These words come under the heading of religious exaggerations or hyperbole.
Today’s mantra in our unbelieving society is that it is sufficient to be a “good person.” Yet, we know that we must strive for righteousness. However, the idea of being right with God and thus “right” in a bigger sense is considered up-tight by many. We are apt to be told that that is just our interpretation, or the Bible was written by people who were limited in their perspective by the time and place when and where they lived or it may have been believed by many and for many years, but that does not make it “right” in any ultimate sense.
Righteousness and holiness are repudiated by so many because they entail accepting the words “sin” and “evil.” I once referred to “our sick and sinful society” in a column in our union newsletter, and one of my colleagues, a woman with a Ph.D. in microbiology and a sociable and pleasant lady, came to my office to complain about my using the word “sinful.” “There’s no such thing as sin,” she said. I asked her, “What would you say about people who have intimate relations with animals,” and she replied “different strokes for different folks.” Then I asked her if sin could be applied to the kidnapping and murder of a four year old child, and she replied, “It’s a crime, but not a sin.” Are you, dear reader, stunned? Well, there are millions of people, even in churches who, tragically, think the same way.
Dimension Two: Paul tells Timothy and us to “Fight the good fight of faith.” Very often faith is portrayed – even by the Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kirkegaard as simply belief, a purely subjective attitude or belief in an eternal, changeless, perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God. By, referring to fighting the good fight, Paul not only sees faith in an active mode, but also emphasizes that it is public and associated with confession. It is not private and subjective.
Faith is our public testimony and manifestation of our faith, and of those virtues or the virtues in Galatians 5:22 that are the expressions of our faith. Confession here is not going into a confessional booth, but of exhibiting Christian virtues in a lost and fallen world! Then Paul really shakes up our 20th and 21st century sensibilities by pointing to Christ before Pilate as the pinnacle example or manifestation of fighting the good fight of faith.
In Matthew, Jesus is asked if He is King of the Jews and answers, “It is as you say.” (Matthew 27:11) He is listed with the same reply in Mark 15: 2 and Luke 23: 3, but in John, Jesus replies, “Are you speaking for yourself or did others tell you about me?”(John 18:33-34) A few verses later in the Gospel according to John, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you a king then?” And Jesus answers, “You say rightly…I came into this world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”
Jesus’ good confession was not His many words, but his firmness in silence or in few words in the face of great personal danger, in a public place where this firmness and/or silence could be witnessed by others, and by His clear attestation of Himself as the Jewish Messiah (who was prophesied to be the universal Messiah of both Jews and Gentiles).
So. we are to fight the good fight of faith not by much speaking, but by holding firm whether to public ridicule or public threats or public slander or public opprobrium… matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Even if our firmness or our faith is perceived as irrelevant by others. When I was teaching in a public high school, one of my co-teachers called across to me in the teachers’ lounge. “Mr. Ludwig,” he called out. “Is God a he or a she?” I answered “God is a he, but not in the sense that you or I are ‘he’s’. He knows everything about us, things we would be ashamed to repeat in this room, but He still loves us, and his forgiveness is there for us if we would turn to Him and receive Him and the forgiveness He offers.”
Dimension Three: Paul tells us and Timothy to lay hold of eternal life. It cannot be seen or heard. We can’t take a weekend flight into the invisible heavenly realm. We have had reports of near death or death experiences related by people who died and were resuscitated. However this Scripture says that the heavenly realm has not been seen, nor can a person see it. So please greet such reports with a dose of healthy skepticism.
The King of kings bestows immortality with God himself. He dwells in unapproachable light. We cannot see Him, but we can hear him. God’s Ten Words were heard at Mt. Sinai (Mt. Horeb). But hearing Him was overwhelming for the Israelites and they cried out for relief from “hearing” (Deuteronomy 4:9-13; 4: 32-36; 5: 1-4; Exodus 20:19). With the hearing of God’s voice so painful, and being in His presence so impossible, how then can we lay hold of eternal life? On Earth He has given us His Word that we might hear Him without immediate terror; yet, we are to go forth in response to His Word in “fear and trembling.”
Further, the Word was made flesh in the person of Christ Jesus, second person of the Holy Trinity. Judgment awaits those who are not living in and through His Word. Here is where we understand that we must take up our Cross daily, deny ourselves, and follow Him to the very end. Only covered by the Blood of the Lamb can we hope to stand in God’s full presence.
Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but a response of God’s people to His love and faithfulness. We appropriate Christ by faith, not by our good deeds. That is why application of and obedience to a list of virtues can never save our souls. Yet, when we are saved and lay hold of eternal life by faith, we then are called upon to walk on a path of righteousness or holiness by implementing the virtues found in the Bible.
Jeffrey Ludwig is presently a lecturer in philosophy in New York City and has taught ethics, introduction to philosophy, American philosophy, and philosophy of education. He also spent many years teaching history, economics, literature, and writing. For ten years he served as pastor of Bible Christian Church; and his theological focus is on the five solae. He has published three books, the most recent, The Liberty Manifesto, being a series of essays about the importance of reasserting liberty as a social, political, economic, and theological value. His other two books are The Catastrophic Decline of America’s Public High Schools: New York City, A Case Study and Memoir of a Jewish American Christian.
The image shows, “The Disciples in Emmaus,” by Abraham Bloemaert, painted in 1622.