At seminary, we memorized 1 Timothy 4. I remember the conversations sparked by verse 12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Initial discussions focused on the challenges younger students would face once they entered the pastorate—fully trained in the academics of the ministry but inexperienced in life.  It did not take long, however, before the full weight of the ministerial task warranted a broader understanding of the term youth. Some were young in their faith, others recently matured from years of elementary belief, while still others were young in their sense of ministerial calling. We all realized that each of us was young in one way or another.

The temptation is to interpret Paul’s words as encouraging Timothy, suggesting he be patient, that those he is anointed to shepherd will accept him in time. Yet Paul’s words are not suggestions; in fact, they are a command for Timothy not to allow anyone to despise him for his youth. This command has a sharp edge considering the level of generational antipathy prevalent in our society, which has no shortage of examples of younger generations losing respect for their elders.

An interpretative difficulty arises when we fail to consider the connection between “let no one despise you for your youth” and “but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Paul is not commanding Timothy to call a congregational meeting and give a lecture demanding respect.  Quite the opposite. Paul is commanding Timothy to turn every part of himself over to God, to abide in Christ with every fiber of his being. A tongue controlled by Christ gives no offense; a witness obedient to God deflects accusation; a ministry filled with love is of inestimable value; a life of faith encourages others; and purity of heart is above reproach. While this list is not exhaustive, the reason for Paul’s command is clear: the Apostle is admonishing Timothy to have such reverence for his calling that he dare not say or do anything that would give Satan any opportunity to accuse him. To fail in this charge would be to allow, even encourage, people to despise him for his youth. It is in this context that we are to understand and apply this verse to our lives and our Christian witness.

We are all young in one way or another, and there will always be someone older, wiser, or more mature. Situations arise in which our Christian conduct is observed.  Paul commands us to be above reproach and have a witness that encourages others. We may not be in vocational ministry, but we all are witnesses for the gospel and we will minister to others from time to time. We are commanded, then, to live our lives in such a manner as never to allow our youthfulness to be the cause for others to despise us.