Deuteronomy 24:19–21 is one of several passages to which we can turn to discover how the old covenant people of God were to care for the most vulnerable persons in society. Widows, orphans (the fatherless), and sojourners in ancient times were often in danger of going hungry because they lacked resources such as land that male heads of household alone could usually provide. Knowing that such impoverished people were in their midst, the Israelites were not to pick their olive trees, wheat fields, and vineyards clean but leave some of their grain and fruit behind for those who had nothing. The poor could go into the fields and work after the harvest, collecting food to feed themselves.
As we will see over the next week, the Lord orders the new covenant church to act much the same way in its relation to widows. Paul in today’s passage moves on to the treatment of widows after discussing how Timothy and other church leaders are to deal with the varying ages and sexes represented in the Christian community (1 Tim. 5:1–2). His focus on widows in 1 Timothy 5:3–16 is likely due in part to some of the problems the Ephesian church faces with respect to its younger widows, and the biblical concern for widows and orphans (James 1:27) certainly moves him to lay down this instruction as well.
The apostle begins his discussion in 1 Timothy 5:3–4 by calling the church to make sure that it cares for women truly in need of help. When Paul tells Timothy to “honor widows who are truly widows,” he is not speaking primarily of an attitude but of an action. That is to say, to honor widows is to support them financially just as honoring elders means paying them a stipend or salary for their work (vv. 17–18). But the church is not to expend its limited resources on every woman who has lost her husband; rather, the Christian community is to help only those who are both alone and destitute, having no family members such as children and grandchildren upon whom to rely. Dr. John MacArthur writes, “Not all widows are truly alone and without resources. Financial support from the church is mandatory only for widows who have no means to provide for their daily needs” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,792).