Before the open plains of the west were divided by barbed wire, cattle roamed the expanse at will. Cattle owners in those days branded their cattle with the symbol of their ranch. The brand, registered with the government, was a symbol or mark that would delineate a ranches property and ownership. Every ranch had a mark that they would burn (or freeze in the case of horses) into the hides of their property. Brands were meant to be fairly simple: the XIT brand of Texas; the “figure 4″ of the Haythorn Ranch; the “four sixes brand” or the Cervi Circle I brand because its tough to draw the Mona Lisa on the side of a bovine.
Its really not that different today, though our symbols have changed. The three stripes of Adidas on the side of your shoe, the flipped “u”s of Under Armor, the siren of Starbucks or the swoosh of Nike. We have been branded in a less painful way, but just as effective. We carry around with us symbols of what has our attention and our devotion, what/who “owns” us. In the same way that Nike wouldn’t miss an opportunity to put a swoosh on a jacket, or a rancher to put his brand on a steer, Paul reminds us to brand this life of ours!
The book of 1Timothy is a letter, written by Paul to his disciple/protégé Timothy who is in a very tough ministry at Ephesus. Timothy is a younger guy who is struggling to lead men who are older than him. Paul devotes huge sections this letter to advice on practical ministry and he makes sure to clearly explain to Timothy how to make his mark in ministry. The word for “example”, tupos, is the greek word for leaving a mark by imprinting. It conjures up images of a dye striking metal, or an engraver’s stylus impressing on silver or gold. It denotes permanency. Paul’s advice to Timothy is to leave his mark, his brand, by watching his speech, life, love, faith, and purity. (1Tim. 4.12) Elsewhere, Paul encourages Titus to make his brand on life by teaching with integrity and sound doctrine. (Titus 2.7) He lifted up the Thessalonians for the mark they made on the world in the way they accepted the Word with joy in the midst of suffering (1Thes. 1.7). Paul clearly understood his ministry as an “example” [tupos] to the world (Phil. 3.17; 2Thes. 3.9). Just as the cowboys of the Flint Hills burned their brands into the hips of longhorns, so Paul urged Timothy and Titus to sear their marks on this life.
The brands that cowboys used to delineate their property from others was enforced and upheld by the honor and integrity of those that came across the animal. There were outlaws who carried a special set of brands, known as running irons. These special “branding irons” didn’t contain a symbol, but were simple sharp pointed irons, where the tips could be heated. Cattle Rustlers (thieves) would use running irons to change the brands in order to steal cattle. They would freehand additions to brands. With the addition of a line or a hook a “D” becomes a “B”; a “3” becomes a “B”; and “I” a “T”; or a “V” a “W”. In the same way you might have changed a letter grade on a poor test to fool your parents, a rustler would change a brand. To combat this practice, should a cowboy be caught with running irons, they were hanged on the spot with no questions asked. There too is an adversary that has his own brand that he is looking to leave on his mark (Matt. 13.24-30; 37-40) on this world. In the same way that rustlers distort the brands originally left on cattle, Satan makes it his mission to distort everything he touches (Gen. 3).
If its our job to make our mark on this life (to set our brand) and Satan wants to distort the message (distort our brands), the brand must be pretty important. The saying goes “Ride for the Brand”, meaning work for the company as though it was yours. The brands that we leave on this life should reflect the One who gives us life. God has given us life through Jesus Christ, and the marks that we make, and the brand Satan is trying to distort, should ultimately point back to God. This world is full of people who are trying to make their mark on this world and leave their brand behind. But the only brand, the only mark, the only tupos, that endures forever is the marks in Jesus hand’s and the marks on his side. (John 20.25-28) That’s “a brand to ride for”, that is a tupos to leave behind. The brand is worth bearing, worth living, and worth dying for…as any good cowboy knows.