In every age, according to the wisdom of God the Father of us all,1 fatherhood in the family has been highly important in the development of children into responsible adulthood. God Himself instituted that role, and for believers, that role of fatherhood is of great importance in the moral and spiritual realms, as well as for the physical and economic well-being of the children that fathers either bring into the world or adopt as their own. But spiritual fatherhood to those outside of the family circle has great value as well, particularly in the context of the church of God.
Paul the apostle reminded the Corinthian saints of their relationship to himself as sons of a spiritual father, for he had in Christ Jesus begotten them through the gospel. They were much in need of admonition, and in his warnings to them in I Corinthians 4:15, Paul provides them and us with an insight into how much God values fatherhood in this moral or spiritual sense by presenting to them this contrast: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers”. Christian teachers are needful for learning the wonderful truths of Christianity, but those who act for God the Father in the role of a spiritual father to younger believers have a special part to play in the spiritual development of souls in local Christian gatherings.
I have been impressed recently by five scenes in the Bible that bring out different aspects of this kind of fatherhood, in which we can clearly see the benefit and value of this relationship between older and younger saints. For the sake of brevity, we cannot take more than a quick look at each of these, though further meditation on each of these accounts by the reader is recommended.
David experienced failure as a father, and later lamented it. It was no doubt the Lord who put it on his heart to “show the kindness of God” to a much younger man very much outside of David’s family, a lame man of the house of Saul named Mephibosheth. You may read the lovely account in II Samuel 9, which is very often used effectively in the preaching of the gospel. Permit me, however, to make this observation and application, that David was led to reach outside of his family circle to show God’s kindness and a generous hospitality to poor Mephibosheth. We who are older can find here an example to practice in our own settings, that is, to show intentional kindness to our younger brothers and sisters in Christ.
Elisha the man of God had what might be called an “elder brother” relationship with the sons of the prophets in his day, but it seems he had a more tender and fatherly relationship with the young man who served him. In II Kings 6, we find the prophet and his servant surrounded by the hosts of Israel’s enemy, the Syrians. Elisha sees by faith Jehovah’s angelic hosts as horses and chariots of fire covering the mountain, and seeks to comfort the soul of the young man with these words: “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” This young man needed more than just assurance from Elisha that all would be well, appropriate as this encouragement was at that juncture. What he needed was the spiritual eyesight that his master possessed, so as to be able to see for himself that Jehovah had full control of their difficult situation, and immediately that ability to see the hosts of heaven came through Elisha’s prayer. “Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see”, was the simple prayer God used to bestow spiritual eyesight and strengthen a timorous young man’s faith. Spiritual fathers pray, and pray often, for the younger ones under their care, that they might see and enjoy spiritual realities.
Paul had a stated relationship as spiritual father to both Timothy and Titus, though we get the impression that the character of their individual relationships with Paul differed as to level of intimacy, for their personalities and the situations of their ministry differed. Both faced difficulties (all of the younger men in these examples faced difficulties), but Timothy’s timidity in the face of declining faithfulness in the church brought him often to tears. The apostle tenderly sympathizes with him, as one who had shed many tears himself, then exhorts Timothy to have the courage to be unashamed of the testimony of the Lord and of Paul’s situation as a prisoner, and then to be strong in the grace available to him in Christ Jesus.2 A spiritual father enters into the sorrow and difficulties of his progeny, and on that basis is able to foster courage and moral strength.
In Titus, another of Paul’s sons in the faith, there seems to have been more fortitude and even maturity, perhaps both naturally and spiritually. In Paul’s letter to him, fatherly care and responsibility took more of the form of instruction and wise guidance in the face of the opportunistic false teachers and divisive persons found there on the island of Crete.3 These were the difficult situations Titus faced, and sound teaching would be the remedy for the danger these faithless ones represented to the assembly. A spiritual father of any age ought to provide the appropriate godly instruction to those under his care.
The case of the apostle John and Gaius, one of his spiritual children (for John usually writes of children rather than sons), is wrenching to our spiritual sensitivities. We find this account in the very short epistle of III John. Diotrephes held sway over the assembly where Gaius and Demetrius apparently served the Lord Jesus and ministered to others, and John speaks of his religious tyranny in a way that makes clear he believes it to be an evil element among them. That evil called for John’s rebuke and correction after a godly sort. But he commends Gaius for his faithful service to the brethren and to strangers, and recognizes the prosperity or growth in his soul, perhaps facilitated in part by the difficult circumstances God had asked him to minister in. Finally, John encourages Gaius to not imitate the evil he saw around him and in the church, but to imitate what is good, of which John himself was a worthy pattern. Appropriate commendation for faithfulness along with encouragement to positive goodness is another way a spiritual father may foster growth in the souls of his spiritual children.
May this word to the hearts of all of us who are mature Christians be used of our heavenly Father to the end that all of His children, His “sons and daughters bought with blood”,4 be brought along by grace and grow to maturity in their souls by faith.
1 There is an aspect of the fatherhood of God that is universal: Acts 17:29; Eph. 4:6
2 II Timothy 1:3-12; 2:1-3
3 Titus 1:9-14; 3:10
4 Hymn #3 in Hymns for the Little Flock