Paul’s Charge to Timothy, The First Epistle to Timothy
John Heading, Aberystwyth
The two Epistles to Timothy differ considerably in their objectives and subject matter. The first Epistle deals with the practical walk of believers in a local assembly, this walk being based on wholesome spiritual doctrine provided for the local church. Second Timothy, on the other hand, constitutes a test of faithfulness in the last days — and this is not surprising since it is a special feature of second Epistles (2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy and 2 Peter) that the last days are particularly dealt with.
Paul explains clearly the reason behind the writing of the Epistle, "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God", 1 Tim. 3. 15. The "house" is a place of walk, conduct, service saintward and of discipline essentially. On the other hand, the "temple" (namely, the inner shrine, used metaphorically in the Epistles) denotes a place of divine dwelling, Eph. 2. 21; 1 Cor. 3. 16-17, a place of service God-ward, so that the local assembly is compatible with the whole body of Christ.
Many topics in the Epistle had already been treated in Epistles previously written by the apostle Paul. He had been saved thirty years before writing 1 Timothy; twenty-one years had passed since he had set out on his first missionary journey; eleven years previously he had written his first Epistle (1 Thessalonians); five years earlier he had completed his third journey with the discourse to the Ephesian elders. Acts. 20. 17-38. He may well have sensed that his life of service was nearly complete, for he was martyred one year later after having written 2 Timothy. Realizing that the apostolic days of authoritative divine revelation were drawing to a close, and that decay and departure were already undermining the doctrine, service and walk so carefully and faithfully laid down by the apostles, Paul knew that a comprehensive treatise was finally necessary on the subject of the practical walk of the Christian. Such an Epistle reaches even to believers today, coming from such an one as Paul the aged, and mature in the revelations of God.
To perceive the state prevailing at the time, we must realize that Paul had arrived in Rome about two years previously, Acts 28, where as a prisoner in his own hired house he was allowed to teach the Word of God. It was under those circumstances that he wrote the so-called prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), after which it is usually understood that he was released for a season, otherwise it is extremely difficult to fit certain geographical references in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus into his movements during the last missionary journeys. Some old writers have even suggested that he actually visited Spain during this period of release, thus fulfilling his exercise expressed in Romans 15. 24 at the end of his third journey. Certainly he visited Crete, Ephesus and Macedonia, leaving Timothy in Ephesus for a very special object, 1 Tim. 1. 3. After that he visited in some order places such as Nicopolis (on the west coast of Greece), Corinth, Troas, Miletus, writing the Epistle at some stage of this latter journey. Finally, as prisoner again in a Roman dungeon, the tone of the second Epistle to Timothy is quite different, breathing loneliness at the end of a long life in which he had kept the faith, seeing the dangers of the last days on earth, and also the bright reward from the Lord at that day.
As far as Ephesus was concerned, Paul had been there for three years during his third journey. By the grace of God, he had been able to plant a most spiritual assembly. Speaking to the elders from Ephesus at Miletus, he recalled those years of service in which the basis of sound doctrine and consistent practice had been laid. As Moses could foresee future dangers at the end of his life, Deut. 31. 29, Paul also was a prophet of dangers to come. His last words to the Ephesian elders had been, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them", Acts 20. 29-30. It is important to realize that Paul was speaking here of the elders responsible to feed the church of God; outsiders would come in, and those on the inside would also assume false leadership. Did Paul have this in mind when he wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians a few years later? In chapters 1-3 he reiterated in written form "all the counsel of God", while in chapter 4 he had spelt out the principles of true ministry thereby to avoid being "carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive", 4. 14. Certainly the Ephesian assembly did take heed to the exhortations in Acts 20, Ephesians and 1 Timothy, for thirty years later, the Lord Himself commended the assembly for recognizing as evil those who falsely claimed to be apostles, and for hating those deeds which he hated, namely those of the Nicolaitans, understood to be the beginnings of clerisy.
In writing 1 Timothy, Paul appears to repeat and develop many of the thoughts he had expressed in his discourse in Acts 20; his own charge to the elders became his charge to Timothy.
Comparison with Acts 20. Here Paul explains his past, present and future ministry, yet at the same time providing seed thoughts that are later amplified in Ephesians and in 1 Timothy. Thus in 20. 18-27 we have the apostolic example, followed in 1 Timothy 1. 11-16 by the apostolic "pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting". In 20. 29, 30, the future existence of false teachers in Ephesus is recognized, followed by 1 Timothy 1. 3, 6, 7, 19, where there are men teaching other doctrine, having turned aside desiring to be teachers of the law, making the faith of others shipwreck. The antidote to this is "all the counsel of God" and "the word of his grace, which is able to build you up", 20. 27, 32, namely "give attendance to reading . . . doctrine", "Take heed . . . unto the doctrine", "wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ", 1 Tim. 4. 13, 16; 6. 3. The elders are prominent in Acts 20; it is they who are called to the apostle, who recognizes their calling and charge, vv. 17, 28, whereas their qualifications are set out in 1 Timothy 3. 1-7 enabling Timothy, the other elders and the saints to discern those who are counterfeit, their work also being mentioned in 5. 17. Their work as servants in the local assembly is seen as feeding the church of God, 20. 28, and consequently they must be "apt to teach", 1 Tim. 3. 2, possessing the qualifications of ministers (deacons) given in 3. 8-13. The collection being taken by Paul for the poor saints in Jerusalem was being gathered in the churches in Galatia, Macedonia and Corinth, but there is no mention of Ephesus being involved, and it would appear that this is the reason why Paul quotes the words of the Lord Jesus, "It is more blessed to give than to receive", 20. 35. In 1 Timothy, this is amplified to press the responsibility of the assembly to support "widows indeed", namely those without any other means of financial support, 5. 1-16, with strong condemnation of those who were rich with no intention of supporting the work of God, 6. 4-10, 17-19. Having finished the discourse, he prayed with them all, 20. 36, the subject of brethren's prayers being amplified in 1 Timothy 2. 1-8. All this teaching and exhortation the apostle claims to have received as a ministry from the Lord Jesus, 20. 24, stressed in 1 Timothy 1. 12, where the Lord put him into the ministry. No doubt the reader can make further comparisons, showing the kind of practical matters that were upon the apostle's mind and heart in his latter days. Certainly he appreciated the necessity for these matters to be repeated systematically, being left on the pages of inspiration for local churches throughout the years.
Survey of the Charge. This charge is spelt out throughout the Epistle, a few rather negative exhortations giving place to the majority of positive paragraphs. 1 Timothy 1. 1-10 presents the charge that none should teach any other doctrine, and that none should heed others teaching such doctrine. Such teaching was based on a misunderstanding of the use of the law, its proper use being that of showing up the character of sin, whereas these teachers were using it for "fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions (or better, questionings)". The law, although good, was not made for believers as justified men, and hence the folly of turning aside to it as a substitute for faith. In verses 11-17, Paul gives by way of contrast the true status of his ministry. His activity as unsaved had been contrary to the law, but as saved by Christ Jesus he was now counted as faithful by God, being a pattern to others and receiving his ministry. The transformation was so far-reaching, that it calls forth the doxology in verse 17. Paul then reiterates the charge in verses 18-20, stating that Timothy had to hold faith when some false teachers had been delivered to Satan on the outside of the local assembly.
Chapter 2 contains two essential paragraphs, relating to men and women respectively. Verses 1-8 deal with assembly prayers—the responsibility was on the menfolk to "pray every where, lifting up holy hands". One main ingredient of their prayers was that rulers in authority should permit the free course of the gospel on account of the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus who had called not only Paul but many others to be preachers and teachers of this truth. Verses 9-15 present that side of the charge that concerns women in the assembly; their status was that of subjection, proper attire and silence coupled with "good works", no doubt referring more particularly to the assembly side of good works, such as found in Acts 9. 36 and Romans 16. 2. Brethren praying for unsuitable things are just as contrary to the charge as are sisters who fail to abide by these principles.
Those who serve in any way in a local assembly evidently have a very prominent position demanding qualifications and faithfulness. The elders must ensure that the details of the charge are properly put into practice by the saints. Thus in chapter 3, verses 1-7, Paul spells1 out the qualifications of a "bishop", namely an overseer or elder. These relate to maturity, character, desires, home life and ability to teach. The desire to overseership must be fashioned by a recognition that all these features are possessed; the Holy Spirit, always consistent, would not make overseers of men not properly qualified. Following this in verses 8-14 Paul provides a similar list of qualifications of all those who serve in any capacity, the word "deacon" merely meaning "minister, servant" rather than being restricted to a small group of men more specifically concerned with assembly administration. Their character and qualifications must first "be proved" before embarking on service for the Lord, and it should be noted that women-servants are equally embraced, for this is the implication of verse 11, not "their wives". The chapter closes with a glance at the example of Christ, who was the true Shepherd and true Minister. The charge being adhered to would ensure that only those qualified and gifted would be responsible for feeding and teaching the saints, and this in turn would keep an assembly on the pathway of true devotion, spirituality, service and testimony.
Chapter 4 presents details of "a good minister of Jesus Christ". In the "latter times", the false teachers would be known as "seducing spirits", and their strange teaching would be known as "doctrines of devils". Men like Timothy, having received the apostolic charge, would have to resist such men and their activity. If chapter 3 presented moral qualifications, then chapter 4 gives spiritual qualifications, revolving essentially around the Word of God acquired through reading and meditation. Timothy was expected to be an "example", v. 12, otherwise his verbal exhortations would not carry much weight. All who take part today in any branch of the Lord's work should be equipped as an example, both in home and assembly life. We cannot expect blessing if the deeper details of the charge are largely neglected.
Chapter 5 lists a series of responsibilities of a personal kind. Verses 1-16 show how "widows indeed" (namely, those without any other means of support) should benefit by the practical ministrations of the local company. There may be very few widows of this character in the more prosperous countries in these days, but the principles of the passage have a lasting application, others than widows being involved, and matters other than financial being of importance. In verses 17-20, the assembly's responsibilities to elders are stated, firstly if they labour spiritually, and secondly if they go astray—the latter possibility seems to be rather prominent in the apostolic thought at this time. In verses 21-25, the charge is repeated as before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, with principles for identifying oneself with the service of others; care was necessary, since sins or good works were in question, and only the latter were in keeping with the charge. This is responsibility to oneself. Finally, in 6. 1-2, the responsibility of servants to their masters is touched upon, important in these days when there so often appears to be a gap between employees and employers. The Christian takes an attitude distinct from that taken by men in the world.
In chapter 6, verses 3-10, the fleshly use of riches is described; evidently there were some in Ephesus who needed the exhortation. Timothy might well have had difficulty in dealing with such men, but he must remain faithful; Paul repeats the charge in the light of the supreme conduct and witness of the Lord Jesus before Pontius Pilate, leading up to another uninhibited doxology. The Epistle closes with a positive exhortation to those who were rich in Ephesus, these exhortations being both practical and spiritual.
The Epistle and its truth was committed to the "trust" of Timothy, as it is also committed to us. Such a trust avoids the vain talk and the academic opposition of the false teachers; the local assembly is no place for such men or their teaching. But the body of the charge is positive, maintaining holy behaviour and discipline in the house of God, enabling the Lord's people truthfully to rise to the heights of the three doxologiesin 1.17; 3.16 and 6. 15-16.