Pastor, persevere to the end of your days in keeping a close watch on both your piety and your theology. You will never reach a level of maturity or a time in your life when you no longer need this vigilance. Again, when Paul writes or speaks specifically to ministers, he basically repeats what he says here to Timothy. To the elders of the Ephesian church, he says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). When he says, “and to all the flock,” we know Paul is urging them to “Keep a close watch on . . . the teaching,” because in the very next verses he warns the elders that false teachers will soon come, “not sparing the flock” — men who will “draw away the disciples after them” (verses 29–30).
During the 24 years I served in pastoral ministry, I saw a continual stream of advertisements about how to grow a bigger church. In nearly 50 years of preaching and teaching, I have heard dozens of messages on evangelism, missions, and church growth. And yet I could probably count on one hand the number of times one of these ads or messages mentioned the only verse in the Bible that essentially says, “Do this, and you will see people saved.”
The message of this verse was so important to the apostle Paul that when he specifically addresses elders in the New Testament, he communicates its essence. This is also the only verse in the Bible (that I can recall) that gives the same exhortation three times. Think it’s important?
What is the verse? First Timothy 4:16,
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.
For 28 years, I have turned to this text every semester on the last day of class. In the compact space of two short sentences are three imperatives and two promises. We’ll begin with the imperatives before turning to the promises.
1. ‘Keep a Close Watch on Yourself.’
How does a minister “keep a close watch” on himself? By cultivating faithfulness to and avoiding the erosion of his devotion to Christ. How does he do this? By obedience to a command earlier in this chapter: “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). And how does he do this? By consistently and wholeheartedly practicing the biblical spiritual disciplines, especially the disciplines related to the word of God and prayer, for these are the God-given means of godliness.
Godliness — a Bible word essentially synonymous with Christlikeness, holiness, and sanctification — is cultivated by the personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines, both positively (vivification) and negatively (mortification). In other words, these biblical habits are the means through which the Holy Spirit works to help us experience God and grow in grace as well as to defeat sin.
Remember that this command was first given to a minister (Timothy) and then by extension to all Christians. So, do not think, pastor, that while your people will become more godly by practicing the spiritual disciplines, you will become more Christlike simply by being in the ministry. The temptations and pressures of the ministry will conspire to make you more ungodly if you do not train yourself for godliness. Mentally remove everything in your life that’s related to ministry. With what is left, could it be said that you are growing more Christlike?
I strongly urge you to read Richard Baxter’s treatment of 1 Timothy 4:16 — especially his eight reasons why you need to keep a close watch on yourself — in his pastoral classic, The Reformed Pastor. Particularly note his third reason: you are exposed to greater temptations than others. Satan is not stupid. He knows that if he can make you fall, it will have a more damaging effect on the church than if he fells the guy who comes once a month and sits in the back row.
Unless a pastor — new or old — devotes himself to the scriptural means of godliness, he will cease to be a godly man. And what healthy church wants a pastor who isn’t godly?
2. ‘Keep a Close Watch on the Teaching.’
In this pastoral imperative, “the teaching” refers to doctrine — to “the teaching” found in “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Put another way, “Study theology, pastor!”
Even to the end of his life, Paul was an example of diligent study. Despite his thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and all he had seen and experienced as an apostle, he pled with Timothy in the final chapter of his last inspired letter, “When you come, bring . . . the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13).