Honoring the Widows
Scripture: I Timothy 5:1-16
Sermon by Rev. Harry Bout
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Toronto, Ontario, 1990
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 7, No. 2
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of our Lord Jesus Christ:
In previous chapters of I Timothy, the apostle Paul has been dealing with the godly walk of each and every member of the church, and especially the office bearers. We see in the last verse of chapter 4 how Timothy himself was to take heed unto the doctrine, that “thou might show thyself approved, that thou wilt save thyself and them that hear thee.”
In all that with which Satan is busy destroying the church, there is especially the attack on that personal godliness which destroys the witness of the church. That happens to the office-bearer in particular. Timothy himself has to take very careful note that he is and will remain above reproach.
In chapter 5, our attention is turned to specific needs of certain members. In verses 1 and 2, there is a general admonition given to the congregation as to how they are to treat one another, and especially the elderly. The remaining verses that we have read focus on the widows.
Remember, Timothy himself is quite young and he has a very important and strategic position in the churches as he takes over for the apostle Paul. So he too will be in a position where he will have to admonish many who are elderly, and are older in age than himself.
“Rebuke not an elder” is not referring to the office of elder, but to those who are elderly — to elderly men. And when they fall into sin, Timothy will also have to deal with them. He is not to rebuke them sharply, but he is to treat them with respect. He will have to deal with them, but he must do so respectfully and not too harshly.
Of course, he may not overlook their sins, but he must entreat as he would his own father; to please forsake that path of sin and to repent before the Lord and to turn away from his sin. That is how Timothy is to entreat the elderly men that he has to deal with.
Notice he is not to close his eyes to sin by any means, but he must be very gentle. So it is also with all the congregation, including the younger people. If a young man falls into sin, he too has to be admonished and sin has to be dealt with, but he should be treated as if he was your own brother. Or if a young lady sins, entreat her as if she were your sister, or an elderly lady, as if she were your mother. It must always be done with a great deal of gentleness, in love and respect.
That’s how church members are to deal with one another, as really within your own family. The younger and elder, male or female-treat them all like your brothers and sisters, like your father and mother. And then if they will not leave their sin, then ultimately you will have to discipline them even further. If there is no repentance, then it does not mean that there is no excommunication. But that should be the very last step, and that would also be the most painful.
Now after this general admonition in verses 1 and 2, we focus on the remaining verses, particularly dealing with the widows. Since this is the primary focus of the sermon, we will consider these verses under the theme “honoring the widows.”
Fathers and mothers are to be honored in the commandments in Exodus 20 and Ephesians 6: “Honor your father and your mother.” If the elderly women need to be honored, then it also is not a surprise that the widows have to be honored. They, too, have a very special place within the congregation.
In Psalm 68 we read that God is “the father of the fatherless, the judge of the widows.” That means that all those who help the widows will receive a special blessing of the Lord, and those who dishonor the widows will especially be punished by the Lord. We read in Deuteronomy that He provides for the widows in a very special way. Tithes are to be brought to them. And in Deuteronomy 16 we read that they also should not be left out of the feasts. They continue to have a very important place within the congregation.
So it should not surprise us that in the book of Acts, when the Cretans complain that their widows are in need and are being neglected, the apostles immediately call the disciples together to appoint seven godly men to look after the needs, including the needs of the widows.
The Lord demonstrates throughout the entire scriptures, Old and New Testaments, that He has special regard for the widows within the congregation. The apostle Paul deals with this in a very detailed way here in I Timothy 5. He especially is very strong in his language regarding the families that have widows, either as a mother, grandmother, aunt or whatever else. You have an obligation toward a widow anywhere in your extended family, not just in your immediate family.
That’s what verse 16 says in summary. You have responsibility as a family, so that those widows will not be a burden to the church.
In verse 8 there is a serious warning that if you neglect the widow, then God’s judgement will come upon you. Then you are worse than an infidel. That means that you are an unbeliever, and God will treat you as an unbeliever or even worse, because you knew the commandments of God but you neglected to keep them.
In all of this we see very clearly how the Lord is protecting the widows. But besides the admonition to the families, the apostle Paul shows also that amongst the widows there are various needs, and that some widows have been given a particular work to do within the congregation, provided that they have the necessary qualifications.
If we look at this text carefully we see that there are five categories in which the apostle Paul divides the widows. First of all, verses 3 and 5 pertain to the widows who have no children. The second category, verse 4, is the widows who have children. The third category, verse 6, is widows who are rich, but who only live for themselves. The fourth category, verse 9, is widows who are on a special list. They are numbered, they are registered. They are officially recognized by the congregation for their qualifications to serve the congregation in a special way. And then the fifth category is verse 11 — young widows who are best off to marry again. We’ll consider each of these categories.
The first category are the widows who have no children. These widows in verse 5 are called desolate. The word “widow” itself means “to be left alone.” Then the word desolate is added in verse 5, which means “to be utterly forsaken. And so she has really no one that she can go to because her head is taken away from her and she has no children.
She especially must be cared for by the congregation, not only in terms of food and drink and housing, but also with one of her greatest enemies, which is being desolate — her loneliness. The congregation surrounds her then, with loving fellowship, and really cares and ministers to her as if she is one of the family. And then in response to receiving that love from the congregation, she is to dedicate her time, night and day it says, in prayer and supplication. She in turn, in the capacity that she has, calls upon the Lord on behalf of the individual needs of the members of the congregation of which she is a member. So she must use her time in a very profitable way. “The prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” James says. It’s the same here, for a godly woman, a widow.
We read in Luke 2:37 of Anna, who was an 84-year-old widow who had only been married for seven years when she lost her husband. “And she did not depart from the temple,” it says. “She served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” Granted, she was also a prophetess. She was given a very special place. But here she is, a widow in the temple, praying and speaking to all who looked for the redemption in Jerusalem. What a wonderful blessing she was to Israel. What a blessing it is to have someone like that in the church, as she dedicates herself by spending time in prayer and supplication for the members of the congregation. Every congregation that has such a widow is greatly privileged.
Secondly, let us consider widows with children. The King James veresion says nephews, but this word is actually broader than that. Literally it means “those born out of her,” so it refers to the children and grandchildren. Most of the time of widows with children and grandchildren is taken up with her own immediate family, rather than the congregation, as is in the case of the widow that has no children.
She continues to have an obligation to teach her children to be godly. In return she can expect to be repaid for all her labor of love lavished upon her family and her children.
If the widow without children spends night and day on the congregation, then it’s also true of the mothers who love their children. How they have spent night and day in the labor of their children to bring them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord! That is hard work, and she is to be rewarded.
The Lord requires that the children repay their widowed mothers. The word requite means “to repay.” “Pure religion, undefiled,” says James, “is that those who are fatherless, and the widows, are to be visited in their affliction.” That’s especially true of children who have widowed mothers or grandmothers.
If children become so interested in their own business that they neglect the needs of their widowed mothers, then we read in verse 8 that God considers them as unbelievers. How serious a sin that is before the Lord! And what a high regard God has for the widows.
The third category is widows who are independent. They seem to have been left with enough money to look after themselves. They don’t need their children. They don’t need the church. And so they live entirely for their own pleasure. They are not interested in building the church, and spending time in prayer and supplication for the church. Their work with the children is done. They live in wantonness and luxury. The apostle Paul says that they are dead, and he means of course spiritually dead, because they are only living for the self-gratification of their desires of the flesh. What a great warning there is here for widows who are blessed with abundance of being able to look after themselves. It can become a curse for them, if they live for the desires of their own flesh and not for the building up of the church of Jesus Christ, or the spiritual concern of their family. They are dead.
The fourth category is a special class of widows who are recognized for the gifts and the special place that they have within the body of Christ. That is why it says: “They are taken into the number.” Other translations read that they are “put on the list.” Apparently the church at that time had a list of widows. Those who met these qualifications performed certain work within the congregation.
Perhaps it’s hard for us to imagine those needs in our society, but if you lived in Mexico or some other cultures, then you would understand it better. Those congregations comprise mostly of women. This is the case in Mexico City. In most churches there, just the women and children come, and the husbands have not turned to the Lord. So there are great needs in those congregations that especially need the ministering of women, jobs which women do much better than men can do. It is in this kind of a situation that we are to understand how these widows would be used within the congregation.
Notice the qualifications that are required. She must be 60 years old, so she must not be a novice by any means; and she must not seek to remarry again either. It becomes a dedication of herself to serve the Lord in this particular capacity.
Also, she must have been the wife of one man, the same qualification required of both elders and deacons earlier in chapter 3.
She must be known thoroughly for her good works. Literally, “it must be witnessed to” — there must be witnesses to her good works. Like Tabitha, everybody knows what she has done. And she had ministered to so many, her fruitfulness was evident by many. She had been such a blessing.
Then fourthly, she must be a mother who has brought up children. The word “brought up” does not only mean “to bear children,” but also to raise children in the fear of the Lord.
All those who have families and children and have gone through teenage years then, know especially. A mother, 60 years old, has gone through all of that. She has spent much of her time in prayer, nourishing her children, and bringing them through so many difficult things, that in every point she would seek for them to walk in the ways of the Lord. How much she would learn about how she must deal with these very difficult things. And how dedicated she must be, calling upon the Lord as she seeks to nourish her children.
And fifthly, she must have lodged strangers. That means hospitality. Her home was to be open, where she can minister to others and show she is willing to give a listening ear to those who are in need, to those who are lonely, and to those who need a place to go for some understanding. She in this way too would demonstrate her compassion and her love, not only for her immediate family, but also to those who are strangers.
The sixth requirement is that she washes the saints’ feet. In John 13, Jesus gave us the example Himself when He took the towel and washed the feet of His disciples. He said to them: “I have given you an example that you should do what I have done unto you.” This is what we have to do to each other. The Lord was far more highly exalted above His disciples in position. But He took that towel and washed their feet.
So this godly widow must have demonstrated in her life a humility and a willingness to be the least, not proud in her knowledge but willing to be the least in serving others. It wouldn’t be below her dignity to wash the dirt off someone else’s feet. She would look upon it as a labor of love. “If you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it to unto me.”
The seventh requirement is that she must also have relieved the afflicted. In other words, she must especially have a certain amount of wisdom to counsel and comfort others. There is a great deal of pressure on many of us, and we all suffer anxieties. That widow must be able to demonstrate some understanding, care and love for the things that you are going through, and relieve you from that kind of distress, either by a word of encouragement or just by coming to sit down and pray with you. It must be some token of appreciation, love and understanding so that your distress and your affliction is relieved.
That is what this fourth kind of widow has done. She has gone to many saints and relieved their suffering in that way, by her counsel from the Word of God. Think of Romans 12:15: “That she would rejoice with those who rejoice and that she would weep with those who weep.” She has an understanding of what people go through, and sees a need and ministers to others.
Finally, the eighth requirement for this type of widow is that she has followed after every good work. That shows you that she is not biased, partial and ministers to only a few close friends, but that she has a broad interest, and has a care and a concern for all. She is just like her heavenly Father, “who would that all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth,” and who “sends rain on the just and the unjust.” This widow is eager to do good to all, to the household of faith first of all, but also to the neighbor next door. She does good wherever she sees a need. In everything she does, she seeks to do good works.
These eight requirements are recognized by all. They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are very evident in her life, and so she is put on a list. Just like the elders and deacons in chapter 3 who rule their own houses well, this widow has been a faithful, submissive wife first of all, and also a good mother to her children. In every way she is a godly example for other young women to follow, and so she is set aside to minister in a very special way.
This does not take away, congregation, from the headship of man. It doesn’t contradict this in any way; but it shows us that the Lord has given to each and every person a particular place within the body of Christ, in order that that body may be built. Of course her place is under the headship of the elders. Yet we recognize the very special place that God has given to widows, and how widows who meet these qualifications are honored, who their whole lives have dedicated themselves very earnestly to the Lord in serving Him in every way. And the Lord is rewarding them now, using them further for the benefit of the whole body.
The fifth category is the younger widows who are much better off to marry again. They should not be appointed to this special task. Apparently this is what had happened in some cases. Some young widows said that they really wanted to serve the Lord and dedicate their remaining years on this earth to Jesus Christ in this way. Then at some point they changed their minds. This takes a very special kind of young widow. Anna was certainly an exception. She was only married for seven years. Then at a very early age she still dedicated her life to the Lord.
As a general rule, it is much better that they marry again. Some who did dedicate their lives to Christ later changed their minds and then we read in verse 12 that they “cast off their first faith.” This was their commitment to Christ, the vow they had made to serve Him. There is nothing wrong with marrying once again, but then you should not dedicate yourself to the Lord in that way.
We read that others also became very restless, and instead of building up the body of Christ, they did a great deal of damage. They were going from house to house with a lot of idle talk and gossip, and instead of building up the body they were destroying it. It became Satan’s work instead of the Lord’s work. Verse 13 calls them tattlers and busybodies. Out of boredom they began to attack one another, with all their little nit-picky comments, breaking each other down, instead of building each other up. “And all such,” we read, “...are these who have turned to Satan.”
Congregation, notice the very strong language that the Lord is using here. What a grave warning, to use your time and your talents for the sake of building one another up to the body of Christ, and not tearing each other down. The Lord will not stand by idly. If you are doing the work of Satan and have turned aside to Satan, you will suffer the consequences of that.
Therefore it’s much better for young women to marry again and be busy with families and their husbands.
Finally in verse 16, the apostle Paul once again comes back to the families “...who have widows that need to be taken care of, so that they will not be a burden to the church.”
You see, congregation, the widows have been given an honored position in your midst. And the widows must take note of this also. Your work is by no means done. Even as you have ministered in the past to your husband and your children, the Lord is pleased to continually use you also to build the church of Jesus Christ.
Notice also, congregation, that you are not to push the widows aside, but you are to recognize the position that God has given to them. In this passage we see again the very tender love and concern there must be within the body of Christ. All the members must appreciate the gifts of one another, so that there is no division with jealousy and ungodly talk, but that you may be blameless, irreproachable.
In verse 7, Timothy is exhorted to speak of these things to the entire congregation, that the congregation as a whole may be blameless before God, and that no charge can be laid to this congregation. This is the kind of love that they demonstrate for one another, recognizing the place that the widows have been given in their midst, that no charge can be laid since there is that demonstration of loving concern for one another. You are to love one another even as your brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers.
Congregation, that’s how the Lord wants you to live before Him. That’s why the Holy Spirit has come — to wash you with His Word. And that’s what the Spirit has to say to you today. Amen.