Our Gospel Duty to the Elderly
Passage: 1 Timothy 5:3-8
This is a rather unique passage because it is by far the longest treatment of widow care in the NT. As well, it gives some specific instructions that aren’t found anywhere else.
To be honest, if it weren’t for the fact that we are committed to expositional preaching, I’d probably never preach it. After all, if we were to take a survey among us of what our greatest spiritual concerns are, I doubt widow care would even make the list. It’s not something we think about a lot until we have a family crisis. And I doubt that most of you crept to the edge of your seat with anticipation when I read this passage.
But because we are committed to expositional preaching, 1 Timothy has brought us to this text, and I am incredibly grateful it did. Since I haven’t preached for 3 weeks, I’ve had extra time to meditate on this passage, and I have learned a lot. In particular, it has shown me another way the gospel transforms us, and it has shown me more of what biblical love really is. You see, Paul tells us in this passage that caring for widows and for elderly family members is not just a great thing to do if it’s convenient or easy or if it gets you recognized as being kind.
No God tells us that the gospel demands that we cultivate a selfless love that drives us to serve the weak and especially our parents and grandparents. This is not natural to selfish sinners, and it definitely doesn’t fit American individualism, and so this passage has a lot to say to each of us whether we feel the need or not.
This morning, we are going to focus on vv. 3–8 and “Our Gospel Duty to the Elderly.”
To do that, I’d like to first consider the church’s obligation and then the family’s obligation. Notice first that…
The church must honor true widows (v. 3, 5–6).
Verse 3 gives the basic command that drives the entire section (v. 3). You probably know that the early church took on a much heavier responsibility to care for widows than we typically do today. We see this throughout Acts. In particular, Acts 6 records how the office of deacon was first established because some widows in the church were not receiving the kind of care they needed.
Our text also indicates that the churches were fully or at least heavily supporting a group of widows. And so, the kind of widow support that our text describes was a substantial ministry that required a lot of money and probably a lot of time.
This was more necessary in the ancient world than in ours because they didn’t have the same government programs we have today. There was no SS or Medicare. As well, a woman couldn’t easily get a good paying job like she can in our day, women didn’t have the same rights they have in our day.
If a woman’s husband died, his estate would not go to his widow but to his eldest son. He was required by law to care for his father’s wife, but you can imagine how this wouldn’t always happen like it was supposed to especially if she were not his mother or if he was just selfish. And so the early church believed that it had an obligation before God to fill the gap in making sure Christian widows received proper care.
But as is typically the case with these kinds of things, the church was struggling to know where to draw the line on whom to support and whom not to support. This is always hard. I think everyone who has served as a deacon would agree that deciding who should and should not receive help from our benevolence fund is always very difficult.
But the church never has unlimited resources, which is why Paul says in v. 3 to only honor “real widows.” And Paul goes on to explain that for a woman to be considered a “real widow,” she must meet certain qualifications.
And so we first need to ask ourselves…
What makes someone a real widow?
Paul gives three basic requirements of those who would receive support.
She must be elderly. Verse 9 says that the church is not to commit to giving long-term aid to a widow who is less than 60 years old. We’ll say more about that in the coming weeks, but for now, we need to recognize that the church should only commit long-term to supporting widows who are physically incapable of providing for themselves. Second…
She must lack other means of support. Verse 6 indicates that there were some widows in the church who had enough money to live luxuriously. Of course, these women did not need the church’s help.
It’s also obvious throughout the paragraph that the widow’s family has the primary obligation to provide for her needs (v. 16). The church should only step in if the family is not fulfilling its duty or is too poor to do so. And so the church was only to step in when a woman found herself with no other means of support. Third…
She must have a godly testimony. Verse 5 says that a real widow has been “left alone” and “trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day.” The fact that she is left alone again means that she has no financial support. But while the world has forsaken this woman, God has not.
Therefore, she looks to God, and she prays “night and day” that he would provide for her needs. Of course, this says something about her desperation. She has no where to look to but God.
But not everyone reacts to desperate times with prayer. Many people get bitter or angry. Therefore, her prayers also say something about this woman’s character. She knows that God is good and faithful even though her life is hard, and so she looks to him for help. And so v. 5 describes a woman of godly maturity.
Maybe you find yourself in a similar position today, and some form of human security has been pulled out from under your feet. Maybe it’s finances or a relationship, or your health. It’s no fun to lose these securities, and our natural response is to just focus on regaining that security. But if you’ve walked with God for any length of time, you know that there is no greater security than the kind this widow enjoys—to know that I have no where to turn but to God and to know that he is sufficient. And so don’t run away from God to a human means of security. Run to him with faith that he is better than any security the world can offer.
In sum, a real widow is an older woman with a godly testimony who has no other means of support. Paul says that the church is obligated to honor such women by making sure that their needs are met and that they are cared for with dignity. But why?
Why must we honor real widows?
There are two basic reasons why God gives this admonition. The first is that…
The biblical ethic demands it. Again v. 3 commands the church to “honor” real widows, and there is a lot of significance to that verb. It’s same verb that is used whenever the fifth command to “honor your father and mother” is translated into the Greek language. And so when Paul tells the church that they are to honor widows, he is saying that the fifth commandment doesn’t just apply to biological families. He is saying that the fifth command obligates the church to care for its widows. We talked about this 3 weeks ago when we were in vv. 1–2. God expects Christians to give all older people in the church the kind of honor that is due to parents.
As I said 3 weeks ago this really rubs against our culture. We live in a world that is obsessed with the individual. We don’t think in terms of community and the community obligation that we have to the elderly. But God established in the Ten Commandments that a godly ethic requires that we honor the elderly in the community of faith.
First, this honor involves respect and reverence. As Paul said in vv. 1–2, all older people deserve to be treated with the honor that parents are due. And all of us who are younger must reject the dismissive attitude of our culture toward older people and give them the honor the biblical ethic demands.
But the fifth command also requires financial provision for parents in their old age. Jesus made this very clear in Mark 7. This passage is foundational for the ethic Paul teaches in our passage both for the church’s responsibility and the family’s responsibility. In vv. 1–2, 5 the Pharisees are bothered that the disciples are breaking their traditions about hand washing. It’s important to note that the disciples were not breaking God’s Law but Pharisaical additions to the Law.
Jesus hammers them in vv. 6–13. There is a lot of powerful truth in this passage but for our purposes today, notice in v. 11 that the Pharisees had set up a tradition where someone could pledge money to God. Of course giving money to God’s work is a good thing. But the Pharisees had elevated this tradition above the fifth command. And they were saying it is okay to not provide for your aging parents because you have pledged money to the temple. For our purposes, it is very significant that Jesus assumes that honoring your father and mother means providing for them in their old age.
And so returning to our text, when v. 3 says that the church is to honor widows, Paul is extending the ethical significance of the fifth command beyond the family to the church. He is saying that caring for elderly people in the church is a foundational ethical requirement. It matters to God, and even an impressive spiritual act like making a large donation to the ministry rings hollow if we neglect this foundational demand.
And so the biblical ethic requires that the church honors and provides for real widows. A second reason we must obey this command is…
True love demands it. Paul doesn’t make much of this point in our passage, but it is everywhere in Scripture. James 1:27 says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.” And the OT prophets declare over and over the importance of caring for widows. They condemn Israel many times because they were doing all sorts of religious stuff, but they lacked true godliness. And one of the primary examples of this hollow godliness in Israel was that they failed to care for widows and orphans.
These condemnations really stand out because we don’t tend to think of caring for widows as a primary issue of godliness. So why did the prophets keep bringing it up? The answer is that Israel’s neglect of orphans and widows revealed the selfishness and rebellion of their hearts. They did not love like God. Folks it’s not that widows and orphans are inherently special; rather, they were needy people who could give nothing in return. And how we love people when we get nothing back is the true test of our love and our devotion to God.
First John 4:8 goes so far as to say that it is a test of salvation. It says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Folks, caring for needy people is at the heart of godliness. It is a fundamental evidence of the transforming work of the gospel.
Now, it’s true that we can’t meet every need. That’s a main point of our text and of the qualifications Paul gives for who is to receive support. The NT is very clear that our primary obligation is to people in the church and to disciple making. Therefore, the church that diverts its energy from gospel ministry into caring for the needy outside the church has missed the basic mission God gave us. The church exists to glorify God by making disciples.
But within the community of faith, the NT is clear that a basic requirement of body life is that we must care for elderly widows and extend selfless love to everyone in the church.
This means that all of us need to be on the lookout for opportunities to extend this kind of love. And when those opportunities arise, we need to put aside our busyness and lovingly serve.
Just this week, I got to hear about how a church member did that for one of our widows. She was driving to an appointment when a fellow church member noticed she had a low tire. He flagged her down and they pulled into a parking lot. I know that this man has been very busy with work recently, but he gave this widow his own car keys and told her to go to her appointment and that he would get the tire fixed. He also told her that if he wasn’t back when his appointment was over that she should drive over to his house and stay with his family until he got done. And so she went to her appointment, and this very busy man stopped his day and honored a widow by meeting a need.
Hearing that made my heart glad, and let’s all be challenged to have that kind of vision for each other. Let’s look for opportunities to a blessing, and let’s live the love of God for each other.
The church must honor real widows. The second duty Paul presents in vv. 3–8 is that…
Christians must honor widows in their family (vv. 4, 7–8).
Remember that I said earlier that when a man died, control of his estate passed to his eldest son, who was then responsible to care for his father’s wife. Since Paul keeps coming back to the family’s obligation in vv. 4, 7–8, 16, we can assume that some in the church were not fulfilling this responsibility. In particular, it seems that they were pushing their family obligation onto the church, which was putting a real strain on the church’s resources.
But Paul is very clear throughout this passage about…
The Priority of the Family’s Responsibility
Verse 4 is addressed to Christian children and grandchildren of widows. And notice that Paul says very clearly that before the church steps in to care for widows their children and grandchildren need to first learn to fulfill their obligation. This is also what is at stake in v. 8. This verse is frequently used to describe a man’s obligation to provide for his wife and children, and this is a legitimate application of the verse, but Paul’s primary concern is caring for mothers and grandmothers who are widows.
And so God is very clear in this passage that Christians are obligated before God to take care of widows in their family by filling whatever gaps are needed. And based on Mark 7, we can extend that to all parents and grandparents.
That might mean providing money. It might mean taking care of things in the house that they are no longer able to do. It might mean managing finances or even moving them into your home.
But whatever it means in your particular situation, you are obligated before God to make sure that elderly family members receive reverence and honor by receiving appropriate care.
There might be someone here who is falling short in this regard. You have an elderly family member, or really any family member with needs that you are capable of meeting. But it’s just not a priority for you. You are too busy, or you are sinking all of your extra money into hobbies. Maybe that person has hurt you in the past, and you are holding it against them. I would urge you to recognize that providing for your family is not an optional aspect of godliness. The first commandment with promise says that you are to honor and provide for your parents. If you are neglecting a family obligation, then you need to repent and to do what God requires of you.
Families must provide for each other. But why is that so important? Notice the…
The Significance of the Command
Paul gives three reasons why we must honor elderly parents and grandparents. The first is…
They first cared for us. Verse 4 says that caring for parents and grandparents is a matter of repaying them for the care they first gave to us. If you are a parent, you know that parenting is a lot of hard work. It’s exhausting, expensive, and life altering. And yet most parents make all of these sacrifices with great joy because they love their kids. They are all in on giving everything they have to their kids.
In light of how our parents invested in us, how sad is it when we don’t have any time for them or any money for them when they have needs. They altered their lives for us, but we don’t have time to give them a phone call or to clean up their yard. Don’t be that person. Recognize all that your parents did for you and give back to them with joy and love. Second…
Caring for them pleases God. Verse 4 says that caring for parents is a matter of learning “piety.” The Greek Word here is the normal word for godliness. It’s an important term throughout this epistle that Paul uses often to summarize basic issues of pleasing God. Have you ever considered the fact that you cannot be godly and neglect your parents and grandparents?
Now you might respond to that by saying, “Well you don’t know how my dad hurt me.” Maybe he left you, maybe he abused you, or maybe he just didn’t show a lot of compassion, and so you are holding onto bitterness against him. I would urge you to humbly recognize that you have sinned against God far more than this parent has sinned against you, and you need to forgive like God. And then you need to practice godliness toward him or her.
Paul goes on in v. 4 to say that when we do so, it is “acceptable” or “pleasing before God.” This phrase draws on the language of sacrifice, and it calls to mind God’s response to a righteous sacrifice. It pleases him. And so when we as Christians demonstrate love to elderly family members it’s as if we are offering up a sacrifice to God, and it makes God happy.
Folks, caring for aging parents is not optional. It is a basic issue of godliness.
The third reason we must care for parents is that…
The testimony of the gospel is at stake (vv. 7–8). It’s best to see v. 7 as addressed to family members because the nearest commands in vv. 4, 8 are given to them. And so notice that maintaining a blameless testimony requires that children care for their parents.
I said earlier that some in the church were neglecting this obligation to parents, but it wasn’t because the culture pushed them away from it. Rather, both Greek and Jewish culture placed a high value on fulfilling this obligation. Therefore, when Christians neglected their parents, it was a major blow to their testimony. Unfortunately, we don’t have quite the same pressure in our society, but it is certainly there. And folks we should be devastated any time our actions give someone reason to dismiss our witness.
But v. 8 raises the stakes even higher. Again, the primary concern of v. 8 is with meeting physical needs. Paul gives two categories that probably have to do with one’s immediate family and extended family. Therefore, we have a primary obligation to our immediate family, but Paul clearly extends the circle beyond that. We can’t say that as long as the people in my house are cared for that’s all that matters.
And notice the weight that Paul puts on this. Again, the backdrop to this statement is that even unbelieving culture recognizes that we have an obligation to care for our families, and so when a Christian neglects this duty, he is behaving worse than an unbeliever.
But more than just our testimony is at stake. When Paul says this person has “denied the faith,” he means that this person’s actions have betrayed the heart of the gospel. We already talked about this when I brought up 1 John 4. John tells us that God’s nature is to love. Therefore, those that have the life of God in them will also love. That’s why John says that the person who does not love does not know God.
In light of that, Paul says that if someone is not willing to love his parents and family, he has denied the very heart of Christianity. He no longer has a credible profession of faith. Let that sink in. Folks, this is church discipline level language. If a man won’t get a job and provide for his family, he shouldn’t be considered in good standing with the church. This is even true if he neglects his parents.
How we care for our aging parents is a gospel issue. The gospel must change all of life even down to how we relate to our parents as adults. And so let’s not shove this kind of issue to the side as if it’s not all that important. No, let’s be challenged about how the gospel transforms everything, and let’s commit to love our family and our church in keeping with the gospel that we profess so that the world will see in us the love of our Savior.
The gospel demands that we cultivate a selfless love that drives us to serve the weak and especially our parents and grandparents. Finally, there might be someone here who has never accepted this gospel. Maybe you have always assumed that you are okay with God because you believe in him and try to do some good things. But v. 8 is clear that being a Christian is so much more than that. Being a Christian changes everything because God’s Spirit comes to live inside us. It even changes how we care for aging parents. If you aren’t sure that you have ever received this new and transforming life, I hope that you will get that settled today. Someone from our church would love to sit down with you and show you from the Bible what the gospel is and how it can change your life. Don’t leave today without getting that settled.