Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
This message is intended to launch a five-part series on our vision for the rising generation of young people and how all of us — parents, wider family members, empty-nesters, single folks, and the young people themselves — can help make that vision a reality. I will launch the series today, and David Michael, Sam Crabtree, Kempton Turner, and Gregg Harris will carry it through in the next four Sundays while I am on writing leave.
I hope the children and young people will pay especially close attention in these messages and listen for what God is calling you to be and to do in these younger years. One of our premises is that living for the glory of Christ is not on hold until you are eighteen or twenty-one. There is a way for six-year-olds to make much of Christ and a way for ten-year-olds to make much of Christ and a way for sixteen-year-olds to make much of Christ. And there is a way for parents and church leaders and all of us to create a matrix of relationships and teachings and expectations and blessings that awaken young people from the emptiness and aimlessness of our popular youth culture and give them a vision for Christ-exalting significance throughout their pre-teen and teen years.
Four Reasons to Gladly Launch This Series
Let me give you four personal reasons that make me glad I can launch this series.
1. The Calling of Psalm 71:18
The Lord Jesus has pressed on me again and again as I have aged into my seventh decade that there is, for a short time, a calling on my life defined by Psalm 71:18: “Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”
I take that very personally. I am called to proclaim the might of God — the power of God, the majesty of God, the sovereignty of God — to another generation. I don’t know why this assignment has fallen to me. I only know that for a short season there is an unusual mandate. And I think I would betray my calling as shepherd of Bethlehem if I did not give my energy to the next generation at this church and not just in California, Wales, and Louisville. “O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation.”
2. Raising Five Children at Bethlehem
Noël and I have raised four sons at Bethlehem. They are grown, married, and have families of their own. I will never cease to thank God for the blessing it was to us as a family that the boys could grow up in this church. All of them today, by God’s amazing grace, walk in fellowship with Jesus. But now, by another act of amazing grace, Noël and I have the astonishing privilege of raising a daughter in this church. In fact, one of my goals, if the elders will let me, and if I don’t become senile, is to be here serving you as a pastor at least until Talitha is grown.
Not many pastors get to raise children with their peers, and then turn around and raise children again with parents who are young enough to be their children. But the benefit that it has is to give me a chance to do some things better — I pray. And it keeps me in the thick of youth ministry at the church.
3. Longing to Pass on the Gospel to the Next Generation
I tremble at the thought that it might ever be said of our church what was said of Israel in Judges 2:10: “All that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”
How could that happen? Easy: The parents did not pass on the history of the great works of God. They did not pass on the life of God in their midst. It happens today. There are astonishing statistics of how many children of evangelical churches simply disappear into the world when they leave home. We would like to be the kind of parents and church where that is not the norm.
4. Desiring to Harness Good Impulses of Grace
God is doing some unusual things in our day among young people. And we want to harness all the good impulses of grace and be a part of this awakening. For example, Alex and Brett Harris just published their book, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations. It’s their father who will give the final message in this series. They started The Rebelution when they were sixteen. Now at nineteen they are doing conferences on the theme and will be in Minneapolis to partner with us for a citywide conference in June. They begin their book to teenagers like this:
Most people don’t expect you to understand what we’re going to tell you in this book. And even if you understand, they don’t expect you to care. And even if you care, they don’t expect you to do anything about it. And even if you do something about it, they don’t expect it to last. Well, we do. (p. 3)
The point is, the usual adult expectations for youth are too low. And these twins are out to raise them. We believe that is the right direction to move.
Paul’s Words to Timothy
So please turn with me to 1 Timothy 4:12. This is one of Paul’s words to the younger Timothy who needed to be reminded that his expectation for what he could be were too low. I will begin with this verse, make a few comments about it and then step back and try to get the bigger biblical picture. Paul says, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
Four brief observations:
1. Youth Can Be Despised
Youth are often looked down on because of attitudes and behaviors that are annoying or immature. Some of the things people often associate with youth are disrespect, rebellion, self-absorption, cliquishness, conformity to peer pressure, indifference to serious issues, and a fixation on fun as the only thing that satisfies. If these are pronounced, people can even despise youth. Paul implies that in saying, “Let no one despise your youth.”
2. Youth Should Not Be Indifferent to What Adults Think
Paul is telling Timothy to do what he can as a young man to keep that despising from happening. Don’t be indifferent to what older people think. Care about it. Take steps to win their approval. “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
3. Youth Should Not See Adult Opinions As Supreme
But the way he tells Timothy to overcome being despised is not to adjust to their attitudes. He does not say, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but find out what they want and act that way.” Peaceful relationships between older and younger is not of supreme value. Adaptation to older people is not the point. He does not absolutize adult expectations. He does something very different.
4. Youth Should Look to Ultimately God’s Standards
Paul says, The way I want youth to pursue not being despised is look to God’s standards of love and faith and purity. In that way, even young people can become examples to older people. “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
The point is not: Find out what older people want and give it to them so they don’t despise you. The point is: Find out what kind of words and conduct God wants and do that. He gives love and faith and purity as examples of what we should do in our words and conduct. Let all your words and actions come from faith in Christ. Let them be loving. And keep yourselves sexually pure.
Now that may make some adults despise you. If you stand up at school for the way of sexual abstinence before marriage, there will be adults that despise you. But you will be right, as well as the adults who really matter, and God himself will not despise you.
So Paul’s main point is that Timothy should not have low expectations of the impact of his life toward those who are older. He should look to God, believe in the gospel, do what God calls him to do, and in that way become an example to the rest.
Don’t Adapt to Low Expectations
How many of our young people think that way: I am called to set an example for the adults. Of course, adults are supposed to set an example for young people. But here it’s the other way around. That calls for a dramatic shift in mindset for most adults and youth today: Don’t adapt to the low cultural expectations for youth. Set high ones. Youth can become examples for adults. Think that way. Dream that way. Or as the Harris brothers would say, “Rebel against low expectations.”
A Biblical Portrait of Youth’s Perils and Possibilities
Now step back with me to get a larger biblical picture of the perils and possibilities of youth. Let’s move in order from original sin to a bold life of God-centered gospel-obedience beyond all low expectations.
1. Born in Sin
First, sin. Every child is born with the corruption and guilt of Adam’s sin. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalms 51:5). That was David’s cry after his adultery with Bathsheba. He accepted responsibility, but he traced his corruption all the way back to conception and birth.
So it is with every child from Adam. And even after God started over, so to speak, after the flood. God said to Noah that he would not bring another flood like that, but it was not because the heart of man was now cured. Instead he said, “For the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). Nothing had changed in the human heart. Not to this day.
So it became a proverb: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22:15). That is the first thing we need to know about all of our children. They are sinners in need of salvation. They don’t just do bad things, they have bad natures, bad hearts. They need to be born again. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. They have all been born of the flesh. Now they need to be born of the Spirit (John 3:6).
2. In Need of the Gospel
Second, children must therefore be taught the truth about God and about Christ and about the gospel. God is the decisive teacher concerning himself, but he uses people, especially parents. “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds” (Psalms 71:17). We pray that God would begin to teach our children from the earliest age in ways that only he knows how.
But he has told us the ordinary way that a child will come to know and trust Christ. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The discipline and instruction of the Lord is not simply moral demands followed by rewards and punishments. That would not be “of the Lord.” The Lord is the Lord who died for the child’s sins and rose again and pours out his Spirit to help us. Dad and Mom bring their children up in this gospel-saturated instruction. The grace of God in the gospel becomes the rule and the power by which a child lives. We will come back to this.
3. Born Again in Jesus
Third, a child is born again and comes to faith in Jesus as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of their lives. “You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth” (Psalms 71:5). The Psalmist says that God has been his trust, his confidence, from his youth. God gave him new life, and he saw Christ as true and precious. That may mean he never remembers a time when he did not trust the Lord.
That would certainly be true for me. My mother told me how I came to a point at age six of wanting to receive Christ as my Savior and how I prayed at her bedside on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But I have no memory of this — or much else in my childhood for that matter. I would say with the psalmist, “You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.” My confidence that I am born again does not rest in being able to remember the point when it happened, but in his finished work on the cross and in the relationship I have with the Lord now.
So after the reality of original sin, and then the teaching of the truth of the gospel, and then faith there comes now the forgiveness of sins.
4. Forgiven Through Faith in the Gospel
Fourth, original sin and all our sinful choices that follow from it will be forgiven through this faith that God awakens through the knowledge of the gospel. David embraces this truth in Psalm 25:7: “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!”
This is good news at every age. We may tell our frightened eight-year-olds whose consciences are terrifying them, that the sins of their youth and their transgressions against Mommy and Daddy’s word may be forgiven. Peter says in Acts 10:43, “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Children must come to love this precious good news that makes them very thankful to God.
5. Given Suffering and Trials As God’s Own Children
Fifth, now that a child is born again and holding fast to Jesus as Savior and Lord and Treasure of their lives, God treats them as his own children. That means he gives them trials and afflictions to purify the heart and to make their faith strong and mature. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. . . . If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:6-8). One of the psalmists cried, “Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless” (Psalms 88:15).
We must teach our children a strong doctrine of suffering and affliction and how the Lord disciplines. We want to hear them say someday what the old man Samuel says to God: “I have walked before you from my youth until this day” (1 Samuel 12:2). And what Obadiah the prophet says: “I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth” (1 Kings 18:12). The Lord is loving our children in their trials. We must teach them how to understand the hard things that happen to them.
6. Brought to Biblical Maturity
Sixth — after sin, teaching the gospel, faith, forgiveness, and trials — it becomes plain therefore that in the Bible children, from the time they come to faith, are being treated by God in a way that can lead them to remarkable maturity and usefulness earlier than most of us think. Here are a few clues that this is the case.
David prays like this for his children and our children: “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown” (Psalms 144:12). What does he mean, “May our sons already in their youth be like plants full grown”? He’s praying that the strength and fruitfulness of the more mature plant will already show itself in his sons even while they are young and the expectations for such fruitfulness is low. Should that not be our prayer all the more: “May our sons and daughters in their youth be like plants full grown”?
And the entire book of Proverbs is designed to help this early fruitfulness happen. The book begins like this: “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel . . . to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth” (Proverbs 1:1, 4). The Bible does not believe that wisdom is only for the aged. Wisdom comes from God’s word mainly and from life-experience secondarily. Therefore, we should work and pray to help our children have wisdom and discretion.
Or consider Ecclesiastes 4:13: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.” Better a wise youth than a foolish king! Think of that. Here is a poor lad badly clothed, and here is a rich king in fine robes. And the Bible says that this lad may be wiser than that king. How can that be? Because wisdom comes from God through his word. That is why parenting and church curriculum should be saturated with the Scriptures, so that someday our youth will hear the folly of old unbiblical men, and not be swept away. They will be like Elihu in Job 32:6-10 when he answers Job’s friends,
I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.” But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right.” (Job 32:6-10)
7. Not Settling for Low Expectations
Seventh, this brings us to the practical conclusion for young people: Don’t let the culture set low expectations for what you may accomplish for Christ. Listen to the way God and Jeremiah argue about Jeremiah’s call when he was young.
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.” (Jeremiah 1:6-7)
Be careful young people that you don’t postpone the burden and the blessing of fruitfulness in your life because you use the excuse, “I am only a youth.” God said to Jeremiah, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go.” There are some younger than you that you can lead, and there are some older than you that you can serve. But do not say, “I am only a youth,” as though the only thing you are good for is watching videos and playing games, as though there is no ministry for you to do.
8. Successful Parenting Is Gospel-Saturated
Finally, eighth, a closing word to parents and all who love children. We do not want to hear our children say when they are thirty what the rich young ruler said to Jesus after Jesus listed the commandments, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Here is the great commandment keeper. Here is the compliant kid who did what he was told. He kept the commandments.
But when Jesus put him to the test and said he lacked one thing: “Sell what you have, give it to the poor, and follow me” (Mark 10:21), he couldn’t do it. He had no heart for Christ. Rule-keeping? Yes. Treasuring Jesus? No. He was dead. He had no affections for Christ. He was simply a good rule-keeper. And he said that it goes all the way back to his youth: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” His parents said do, and he did.
The Shaping and Sustaining Power of the Gospel
Parents, successful parenting is more than compliant kids. It is gospel-saturated living and teaching. Show your children how Christ, crucified for our sins, and Christ, raised for our justification, and Christ, showing the Father’s love, and Christ, guaranteeing the Spirit’s daily help — show them how this gospel is not just something that begins the Christian life but empowers it and shapes and sustains it. Pray and love and teach your children until Christ breaks in on their hearts and becomes their Treasure.
May God give us a vision for the next generation that glorifies the gospel of Christ, and leads thousands of young people to the cross where they find forgiveness of sins, and broken-hearted humility, and Christ-exalting courage to rebel against low expectations and “do hard things.”