First Timothy 4:12 is a personal message to Timothy. Paul exhorts, “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, NKJV). Timothy was likely in his 30s at the time Paul sent this letter, but he was a “youth” in comparison to Paul and likely to many in the congregation in Ephesus.
The words to Timothy are also an encouragement to all younger believers everywhere. It’s natural for people to look down on younger generations just because they are young and inexperienced. Paul says that young people can counter that tendency in their elders by paying attention to their own character. A young Christian can and should set an example for others and point them to God. In that way, no one will “despise” their youth.
Paul’s command to Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth,” is followed by further instructions to prevent such attitudes in the church. To despise is to show contempt toward, to scorn, or to disregard. Timothy could avoid being despised by being an example to others in his speech, conduct, love, spirit, faith, and purity and by devoting himself to the public reading of Scripture, exhorting, and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13). All Christians, especially young Christians in ministry, still have the same calling.
Christians should live such that they are not despised as callow, naïve, or immature. We can stave off such contempt by being an example in everything and doing what is good: “In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7–8). Our conduct matters. What we do and say either reflects Christ well to the world or misrepresents Him. Regardless of our stage in life, our goal should be to “let no one despise your youth.”
Paul gives Timothy specific areas where he can represent Christ well: in word, conduct, love, spirit, faith, and purity. A Christian has surrendered his life to the lordship of Christ and continues submitting to the Word and work of the Spirit to grow in godly character. A wise young Christian desires to submit to Christ’s lordship in all areas so that no one will despise his or her youth. God’s Word has much to say in each of these areas, and wise youths will prayerfully examine their lives to see if they reflect God well:
1. Word: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21, ESV), so we should pray like the psalmist that the “words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).
2. Conduct: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12, ESV).
3. Love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
4. Spirit: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16) and “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).
5. Faith: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
6. Purity: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5).
As part of the preventative against people despising his youth, Timothy was also to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, preaching, and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13). God’s Word transforms us, sanctifies us, and gives us the opportunity to see and know God. By focusing on these disciplines and growing in godly character, Timothy would be a powerful influence for Christ. No one would look at his ministry and despise his youth. Timothy would be advancing in spiritual maturity and being the salt and light that God called him to be (see Matthew 5:13–15).
In a time when many youth seem to be falling away from the faith, young believers can stay encouraged to shine brightly for Christ and be an example to all believers, regardless of age. Youthfulness need not be a stigma. A young Christian’s character and priorities can point people to the salvation Christ offers. The best way to “let no one despise your youth” is to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).