Fan into Flame the Gift of God
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands (2 Timothy 1:6).
Paul begins his second letter to Timothy by reminding Timothy of the blessings that are his in Christ. Timothy is reading a personal letter to him from Paul, which ultimately is in truth a message from the Son of God – think of it! Jesus has sent a letter to Timothy through Christ’s apostle, Paul. Timothy also has more than that, he has grace and mercy and peace from the Godhead. He has still more, he has the Apostle Paul praying for him night and day. There is more yet! Paul assures Timothy of his love for him, telling him that he’s longing to see him – think of that! But then there is even more, Paul gives him verbal assurance that he’s convinced that genuine and sincere faith is living in Timothy’s life. What an encouragement! ‘He thinks that I am a real Christian!’ Then Paul tells him of yet another blessing that he possesses, not only grace and mercy and peace, not only saving faith, but he possesses another grace, and this will be my first point.
1. Timothy has a gift from God
In Paul’s words here Timothy is told that he has a charisma, a gift of grace. Timothy possesses not only grace in the general sense of saving grace, but he possesses also a specific gift to assist him and equip him for the work that God had given Timothy to do in the Christian church. He had been called to be a pastor-preacher, to establish churches and build them up, and in order to do that work God gave him a charisma. In other words God gave him the equipment, and the aptitude, and the endowment, and the ability that this particular calling demanded. For example, Timothy had to be able to teach the truth, and move a congregation, and guide a church, and inspire people, and hold a fellowship together. It was not enough that he had saving grace – that was not something derived from himself but was a gift of God – no, he also needed equipment that came down from God in order to do a particular work in a church, what God had called him to do.
Now that surely is the invariable biblical order, that a Christian must have genuine faith, and grace, mercy and peace from God, and a written word from God that needs to be passed on to others. All those things are indispensable, but something else is needed. Every Christian is a new person in Christ. He is able to say, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ and by the grace of God he will always possess a charisma to attempt great things for God and also to expect great things from God. Every one of us who has sincere faith, has to reckon with this reality also, that we have a place in the church, a function and a role, some responsibility in our assembly. We can do what others can’t do just the way that we are able to do it. We can reach parts of the body of Christ that others can’t reach.
None of us is redundant; none of us is superfluous; none of us is useless. There was once a small boy who came through the open door into his chapel and he quietly watched the organ tuner tuning the organ. All the pipes were being cleaned and were laid out on the pews of the chapel, and finally he picked up one of the smallest and he blew through it and it made a delightful high sound. ‘Sir, could I have this one? It is just a little pipe.’ The organ tuner smiled and said kindly to him, ‘I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed. All the pipes are needed because all the pipes are used.’ Each of us has his place in the body of Christ. Each of us has a contribution to make in the church and to our own particular congregation, and it is one that no other member of the body is able to make quite like we can. Because to every one of his children God gives not only grace, mercy and peace, and sincere faith, but God also gives a particular charisma (or charismata in the plural). He has given all of us not only grace that saves us, God has also given us all charismata which will make our existence in the church of God meaningful and useful to that congregation. So Paul moves on from the real faith that was in Timothy’s life, as it had been in his mother and grandmother before him, to remind Timothy (as every Christian) that he had a desire and an enabling and an energy from God to go on working for his local church. It’s essential isn’t it? You remember the warning of James that not many should be Bible teachers because ‘we who teach will be judged more strictly.’ How then can we even think of becoming preachers? We can, because God gives men the gift of grace to do this. Let me make ten brief comments on spiritual gifts.
i] God will determine which Christian is going to receive any combination of gifts. If we learn anything from what the New Testament defines as spiritual gifts then one thing is paramount. God bestows them. They are not earned or merited or worked up but they are freely given by him. God makes the choice of the gift, and the choice of the recipient, and then he directs us to their application. He lays them on us.
ii] No Christian can give a spiritual gift to anyone else. It was different in apostolic times, in that the apostles could arrive in Samaria and lay their hands on the believers there and through the apostles they would be given spiritual gifts. Paul and the elders could lay hands on Timothy at his ordination and he received the gift of proclamation as our text says, but even then it was rare. Paul does express a longing for the church, ‘I would that you all have a certain gift.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Receive it!’ The apostle couldn’t bestow it on them all. Dr Lloyd-Jones said,
It is the Spirit alone who decides which gifts to give, and it is the Spirit alone who can give the gift. And if you start trying to help, you come near to sinning in a very serious manner against the Holy Spirit himself.1
iii] No Christian is permitted to ‘claim’ any gift for himself or others. A preacher can’t pass on his pulpit and his religious empire to his son simply because he is the boy’s father. He may have better gifts than his father; but he may be far weaker. This follows on from the first two points. You can say you are ‘naming it and claiming it’ until you are blue in the face. You can claim the gift of evangelism that you might become a second Whitefield – and many have – but no Whitefield has arisen. You and I must never do anything in any way to produce a gift in ourselves or in anyone else. We can desire, but we cannot produce. We cannot help in any way at all. These gifts come by the sovereign Spirit, not by man or by the will of the flesh.
iv] No Christian lacks gifts of the Spirit. Not one. You can see that in the informal way Paul introduces the subject. ‘We’ he says, standing in solidarity with them, ‘have different gifts, according to the grace given us’ (1 Cor. 14:6). We have them; every Christian has many gifts, and just what an extraordinary range of spiritual gifts there are both in ministering to others and in receiving ministry from them. There are gifts of showing kindness and praying and giving and listening and counselling and serving and supporting and exhorting and speaking – and never stopping all through one’s life – we all possess gifts in a range of combinations. Not having gifts is never the problem. It is in using and maturing the gifts we have that we are found wanting. We must not be self-conscious about our gifts. You will discover what are your own gifts by providence, in other words, what responsibilities and work God is giving you in the relationships you have in the congregation. You will have duties and challenges that don’t go away, and then God will gift you for them. Philip started off as a deacon and he did well. So then God sent him to Samaria and the whole city was affected by his preaching. I started off in the Christian Union in Cardiff University praying and leading meetings, and in time moved on from that to a congregation.
v] No Christian has all the gifts. Only the Holy Spirit has all the gifts. We are creatures and he is the Creator. There is a Creator-creature distinction established by God. There is a great gulf fixed between the two and no man has ever crossed it or ever will. The Holy Spirit will give to some men in abundance – Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Bunyan, Hodge, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Sinclair Ferguson. All of them might be extraordinary men with an abundance of gifts, but they’re not God! The Spirit is not miserly with his gifts; we all receive many gifts from him, but no one has all his gifts.
vi] Every Christian has different gifts. The church is like a body and its members are as different as the parts of the human body. The body needs all its different members. We appreciate a wide range of gifts in our congregation. There’s the old nursery rhyme about how different people like their tea to be brewed:
Some like it hot;
Some like it cold;
Some like it in the pot
Nine days old.
We are given different gifts to minister to one another and receive ministry from one another. Let me remind you of what I have often told you concerning the difference between the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts are what make us different from one another. Remember those eight staccato questions that end that chapter on gifts, 1 Corinthians 12: ‘Are all apostles?’ What is the answer? ‘No.’ ‘Are all prophets?’ The answer again is no. ‘Are all teachers?’ No. ‘Do all work miracles?’ No. ‘Do all have gifts of healing?’ No. ‘Do all speak in tongues?’ No. ‘Do all interpret?’ No. ‘But eagerly desire the greater gifts’ (1 Cor. 12:29-31). On the other hand, the fruit of the Spirit is what makes us the same as one another, especially the fruit of love. By this the world will know that you are indwelt by Christ – not by any gift, but by the love of God in your lives.
vii] Every Christian’s gifts are bestowed to serve the church. They are not given to adorn you, and add honour and fame to your name, but to exalt the name of Jesus Christ by supporting and strengthening his people. Gifts are called ‘exciting’ only by the immature. In truth they are a fearful responsibility. We can never set them aside. We have a solemn stewardship of our gifts to assist the needy people of God ‘while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures.’ Often we are weary serving our local congregation, and then we have to ask God to refresh and revive us, never to take from us our gifts. ‘Help me, O Lord.’
We have to think of the body before we take any decision about leaving a congregation and stopping exercising any of our gifts. Consider what impact will this have on the body? Think, ‘If I leave this church now what will happen to it?’ I heard of a ship that went down and there were a group of people in a lifeboat. The waves were breaking over it and the life-boat was filling with water and they didn’t have enough buckets to bale it out. One of the passengers got the idea that if he bored a hole under his seat the water would drain out. So he proposed the idea and everyone shouted at him, ‘Oh no. Don’t even think of it.’ He got very sniffy; ‘Don’t get so worked up. It’s not your business. I’m just going to bore the hole under my seat, not under yours.’ You see the folly of that man, thinking that he could take such a decision and that it would only affect him. How we use or don’t use our gifts will affect everyone. They have been given to us – for the church.
viii] Every Christian is given the gifts he needs for the work God is calling him to either on the front line or staying at home. One person is on the front line while the other is guarding the supplies at home but the latter is as essential as the fellow on the front line. I remember a man in a prayer meeting at times of evangelism who would always pray for those guarding ‘the stuff’, as well as those who were knocking on doors, or preaching on the beach, or in the open air.
ix] A Christian’s effective use of his gifts depends on a growing relationship with his Head, Jesus Christ. The instructions as to how we Christians are to behave always come from the Head. Muscles wait for orders from the head sent to the nerves before the muscles respond. If you touch something hot, the fingers send a message up through the nerves to the brain. The message says, ‘It’s hot down here’ and then waits until the message comes back from the brain that says, ‘Get out of there!’ So you get out of there. You move! A muscle does not act on its own. It waits for orders from the head. How perfectly God has designed our bodies to illustrate this truth in the church of Christ. We’re to wait until we get orders from our living Head as to where we are to move, what direction our work is to take. Let’s all keep in close fellowship with Jesus Christ our Head.
x] A Christian’s gifts are to be developed. True gifts of the Spirit mature. We grow wiser and more patient and more loving. We preach better, and we pray with more spirituality. We grow in graciousness as we go on in the Christian life. Sanctification is effectual in all the elect of God. We are to stir up the gifts we have. That’s where what is called today ‘speaking in tongues’ is a total failure. There is no maturation. No one says, ‘Remember when Johnny first spoke in tongues; it was immature, but now … what glories of Christ and the Kingdom of God does he bring, what theological brilliance and evangelistic wisdom he now displays through the gift of tongues.’ No. There is nothing like that. It fizzles out. So my first point, Timothy had a gift from God.
2. Our gifts from God need to be fanned into flame
The grammar here is quite significant. So far we have had indicatives, in other words, we are told what has been done, what God has accomplished and given to Timothy and to ourselves. Now we have the first imperative in the letter, the first command as to what Timothy and every Christian must do. You see there are many more to come, even in this first chapter; ‘Don’t be ashamed to testify about our Lord … join with me in suffering for the gospel … keep what you have heard from me … guard the good deposit with the help of the Holy Spirit’ and so on in the next three chapters. There are many imperatives addressed to Christians as to how they are to live, and so it is quite significant to see this as the one that is at the top of the priorities of the apostle, ‘Fan into flame the gift of God.’
What can we infer from this? There is a very real danger that we may on the one hand possess the gift and yet on the other hand that gift may be allowed to languish and wither and become well nigh useless. The gift may atrophy; it may get very close to extinction. Think of the time when there were dinosaurs in the world, huge, virile beasts that had no other enemies. You would think they would last for ever, but they became extinct. They vanished from the earth and all we have left of them is fossils. So it is as you look at the New Testament church, its theological grasp and its evangelistic success and you would think that it would soon fill the world, and yet the second century comes and soon it has begun to lose the gospel and imbibe errors and it is in freefall.
Paul looked at Timothy and he was concerned. However privileged his background and his experiences and friends there was a danger that Timothy’s gifts were growing cold; and that applies to every Christian, that our gifts may be in imminent danger of extinction. It could be true of me, and it could be true of you. Haven’t we all known men whom we considered eminent in the church but they never achieved anything in their lives? We have to take immediate and urgent action that the charismata God has given us may not languish to the point of extinction. You are aware of this reality aren’t you, that the saving grace of God once begun in our lives is never withdrawn? We shall persevere to the end. Yet there is no reason to become complacent about spiritual gifts we have received from God, that the gifts may wither and become extinct and we become useless where once we were steadfast and abounding in the Lord’s work. We may cease to have any relevance and help and usefulness to the congregation. Think of some of the judges and the life of King Saul, and the latter years of David, and Demas, and the congregation in Laodicea. Think of the decline in all the denominations in Wales, how eagerly they swallowed the error of modernistic unbelief that started in Germany. It was not an academic and intellectual defeat. It was a failure to fan into flame the gifts that God had given it, a colossal nation-wide declension. How could that have happened? How might it happen to us? I am asking how a Christian given a gift of God can lose it and it becomes totally extinct? I will make some suggestions to you …
i] We can despise the gifts of God. Paul warns Christians in the Thessalonian church not to despise prophesying. There were times in the New Testament church when prophesying was hesitant and confused and frankly embarrassing. A man could speak and he was not very eloquent yet he kept on and on, and bored his hearers and they started to despise the time in the service when such men preached to them. There is no reason why this should not happen when other gifts are also exercised, when a pastor is teaching, when a brother is praying, when there are clumsy attempts at doing good, when leaders become over-harsh or over-indulgent in their leadership, when weakness and ego are mixed with something that is divine, a gift from God, and contempt comes into our hearts. And one result is that we don’t exercise our own gifts at all. We stop praying in the prayer meeting; we stop exercising the gift of hospitality, and the reason is that we have become so critical of the gifts that other people exercise. We are despising them, and so we become suspicious of any kind of initiative. The students have planned a carol service in the football field and invited the local dignitaries and the town band to accompany the singing and the local school is providing a choir to sing a hymn; it would be the easiest thing for us to dismiss all of that and point out the flaws. What a mistake that would be! Or we can be uneasy in the presence of any kind of leadership, of preaching that is searching, and discriminating, and applicatory and new paths are opened up to us concerning the grace of God and we are invited to walk along with them, but we are suspicious. ‘It has never been like that here,’ we say and we turn a deaf ear to the voice of grace in another and refuse to pray for him and our own gifts languish and die as we become stony faced to other gifts in the congregation. Then there is another way in which our gifts can languish …
ii] We can quench the Spirit. That is an imperative that Paul gave the church at Ephesus. You understand the situation? God has given you a certain aptitude and vocation but it is very challenging, for example, going to France as a missionary means an eruption in your plans. Your wife has to be persuaded and you are intimidated. So for whatever reasons you extinguish the gift; you reject the responsibility and possible sacrifice or embarrassment, and so we put a pillow over the mouth of the gift and we suffocate it.
iii] We can neglect the gift. In his earlier letter to Timothy Paul urges him not to neglect the gift that was in him. You see the challenge of that? We sometimes imagine that a gift that God himself has given to us is going to look after itself. We would not think like that if someone gave us a potted plant and we never watered it or kept it in a warm room. We should not be surprised if it started to die. So too with gifts that God gave us; they are not self-perpetuating. If we don’t look after it, and fail to exercise it, and care for it, and nourish it, and train it, and discipline it then it will die. You see it in a child who pleads for a dog but when you give him one he totally neglects and ignores it. The dog becomes unmanageable, always clamouring for attention, wild and useless.
So in all these ways the peril exists of the gift of God becoming extinguished, and it was a danger that Timothy was facing. And that is why Paul tells him to use the bellows and give the embers of the gift some oxygen, and get the fire roaring. Fan the flame. Stir it up. Cause it to blaze forth in all its potential for good and for helping the church.
3. How we can fan our gifts into flame
Who doesn’t want to be more useful in the church? Who wants to be a parasite? Then what actions are we going to take? We are to fan our gift into flame. We are to cause it to blaze forth to brighten and cheer a cold corner. So what does that involve?
i] You must take heed to yourself. Not so much to your gifts and abilities in the first instance but that you look at your own soul, at the quality of your own personal life, at the temperature of your devotion to God, at the closeness of your walk with God. It may be that we have become a passenger in the church, not because of an absence of gifts but because of a deterioration in our own personal character on a moral and spiritual level. It is a calamitous thing to assume that because we are gifted we can afford to take our souls for granted, that we can be less than vigilant over our own spiritual condition. It is a part of the tragedy of able men that for so long their gifts supported them and sustained them when there were secret sins unmortified, unrepented of, weakening, debilitating them. All the life and all the vitality and all the integrity was gone, and yet the gift itself was absolutely coruscating by its brilliance, and it kept the man going, year after year, the invitations kept flooding in, the books kept appearing, the visits to the USA and Australia were E-mailed to him month by month and so his horrible problem was obscured, even from himself!
We have to remind ourselves that even if we are brilliant and tremendously gifted, we can’t afford to neglect this elementary advice that Paul gives to Timothy to take heed to himself. It applies maybe to every gifted man but it applies to every kind of Christian. We cannot afford to neglect our own souls. We can’t afford to neglect elementary religious practices like reading and prayer, sitting with other Christian people and listening to them talking of how God has been dealing with them. If we are failing there, then we shall soon be marginalized, and we shall soon become redundant, and we shall soon become parasitical in the church of Christ. Very soon our gifts will wither, and we shall cease to be a part of the church’s overall resources. Then we shall become liabilities to the whole body of Christ and the elders will talk about the problem that is you and you will cease to be a blessing to the church but a cause of division, and all because you failed to take heed to yourself and so failed to fan your gift into a flame.
ii] You must nourish and train the gift. We are to make specific provision for it. You see that the problem is usually this, that it is so tempting for us to concentrate on what we imagine to be our points of weakness in our Christian lives. A man, for example, is a fine teacher, and yet he may be lacking in some other qualities, and he may say to himself, ‘I must work hard at those other needs in my life because I can afford to neglect my strengths.’ Now that, surely, is very dangerous, because we cannot afford to neglect our gifts. Leigh Halfpenny is a brilliantly accurate goal-kicker for the Welsh rugby team. He cannot afford to stop practicing his kicking every single day. Daniel Barenboim is a magnificent piano player. He cannot risk failing to practice his playing for a few days. Such men cannot take their gifts and their strengths for granted. It may be in that area where a Christian is strong that there the devil will come in and draw us away into a syndrome of declension and uselessness to the body of Christ. Timothy was a teacher and yet Paul’s advice to him was to give attention to reading. Timothy might have protested, ‘But teaching is what I do best. I don’t need to worry about my teaching.’ Paul says, ‘Don’t ever neglect that area in your life where you are strongest. Strengthen that gift. Nourish it, cherish it, provide for it, develop it, build it up in every possible way, fan the flame into more warmth and more light.’
That applies to us all whatever our role or function or gift may be. If it’s ruling then let’s develop our management skills and our personal relationships and our counselling. Maybe our gifts are serving, or giving hospitality, showing compassion, then let none of us say, ‘Well, I’m strong there and so I can take that for granted.’ Instead we are to especially strengthen that area. That is our particular vocation. That is where God wants us to lay out our strength and work away at the maturing and developing of this particular aptitude. Nourish and train the gift God has given you and so fan the flame.
iii] Keep on exercising it. Timothy was under enormous pressure to discontinue and to abdicate. So Paul speaks solemnly to him, and his first word is to keep fanning the flame so that it burns brighter and brighter. Stir it up into new life. Exercise the gift that God has given you. Here is a man who goes to a fitness centre and he has a personal trainer and the trainer sees that the man’s arm muscles are rather puny. What does he do? He doesn’t concentrate on his leg muscles instead, and neither does he make a sling so that he rest his arm constantly. That would have the very opposite effect. He gives him a regimen of exercises to strengthen that arm. So it is with us in our role in our church – please let every one of us get on with it; let us discharge our responsibilities in that role. Let us exercise the charisma that God has given us. Paul exhorts Timothy elsewhere to give himself wholly to it.
We are not all called to what is referred to as ‘full-time Christian service’ yet for all of us our role in the body of Christ ought to be a matter of urgent concern. It deserves to be given priority, and Paul is saying to Timothy, ‘Completely dedicate yourself to what you are doing. With all your strength and all the power of your intellect, and all the experience you have gained, and all your fitness, and all your common-sense, and all your wisdom, put everything you have into the exercise of this charisma.’ That is surely the fundamental concern – that we be giving ourselves wholly to our work in our congregation. It may be in our imperfect congregation that we are badly organized, and disordered so that we find ourselves without a role, ignored and left out. If that is so then the responsibility lies with the church and a heavy responsibility that is. But those of us that have been asked to do a work and who have a gift, are we taking that responsibility seriously? Are we giving ourselves wholly to it, with our hearts and souls? It applies to me, and it applies to all of us. God has given us saving faith, and God has given us also a charisma.
What are we doing with our charisma? What are we doing with the gift that God has given to us? Are we fanning it into flame? Are we stirring it up into new life? Are we giving ourselves wholly to it? Here is a command, and it is as much a command as any of the ten commandments. If we love our Lord Jesus then we will keep his commandments. ‘Fan into flame the gift of God.’
- D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter Twelve: Christian Conduct (Banner of Truth, 2000), p. 221.
Volume 12: Christian Conduct
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