1 Timothy

How to read 1 Timothy


    • Content: an indictment of some false teachers-their character and teachings-with instructions on various community matters these teachers have brought to crisis, interspersed with words of encouragement to Timothy

    • Author: the apostle Paul (although doubted by many)

    • Date: A.D. 62-63, from Macedonia (probably Philippi or Thessalonica), apparently after his (expected) release from the imprisonment noted in Philippians 1:13 and 2:23-24

    • Recipient(s): Timothy, a longtime, younger companion of Paul; and (ultimately) the church in Ephesus (the grace-benediction in 6:21 is plural)

    • Occasion: Paul has left Timothy in charge of a very difficult situation in the church in Ephesus, where false teachers (probably local elders) are leading some house churches astray; Paul writes to the whole church through Timothy in order to strengthen Timothy's hand in stopping these straying elders and some younger widows who have followed them

    • Emphases: the truth of the gospel as God's mercy shown toward all people; character qualifications for church leadership; speculative teachings, asceticism, and love of controversy and money disqualify one from church leadership; Timothy, by holding fast to the gospel, should model genuine Christian character and leadership


The letters to Timothy and Titus have long been called the Pastoral Epistles, under the assumption that they are intended to give instructions to young pastors on church order. But that tends both to read later concerns back into these letters and to lump them together in a way that loses their individual (and quite different) character and life setting. This letter is the first of the three, written soon after Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus. Having disfellowshipped the ringleaders of the false teaching (1:19-20), he left Timothy there while he went on to Macedonia, charging him to stop "certain persons [from teaching] false doctrines any longer" (1:3).

The letter fluctuates between words to the church through Timothy and words to Timothy himself, although even these latter are intended to be overheard by the church. Much of the letter points out the follies of the false teachers/teaching ( 1:4- 10, 19b-20; 4:1 -3, 7 ; 6:3 - 10, 20-21). The words to Timothy ( 1:3, 18- 19a ; 4:6-16; 6:11 -16, 20-21) charge him with regard to his duties and encourage him and strengthen his hand before the community to carry out these (sometimes unpleasant) duties. These two matters merge in the final charge to Timothy in 6:20-21 . The rest of the letter deals with community matters, obviously deeply influenced by the false teaching-matters such as the believers' gathering for prayer and teaching (2:1-15); qualifications for, and replacement of, leaders (3:1-13; 5:17-25); caring for older widows, but urging younger ones to marry (5:3-16); attitudes of slaves toward masters (6:1-2).

Despite the many words directed personally to Timothy, this letter is all business, as is made clear by a lack of both the ordinary thanksgiving and prayer reports that begin Paul's letters (cf. 2 Timothy) and the greetings to and from friends that conclude them (again, cf. 2 Timothy).


As you read, note especially what Paul says about the false teachers and their teaching-since concern about them appears to lie behind every word in this letter. There are good reasons to assume that these teachers were local elders who had embraced some ideas that are quite incompatible with the gospel of grace (1:11-17): First, unlike the other letters of Paul that deal with false teachers (2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians), I Timothy gives no hint that these teachers might be outsiders. Second, Paul has already excommunicated two of them, clearly insiders (1 Tim 1:19-20), and the later evidence from 2 Timothy 2:17-18 indicates that one of them (Hymenaeus) refused to leave (note that he is named first both times, implying that he is the ringleader). Now, third read Paul's address to the elders of this church in Acts 20:17-35, and note that, some five years or so earlier, Paul had predicted this very thing would happen (vv.29-30, that from among their own number some would arise and distort the truth).

If you add one additional factor, that these elders have made use of some younger widows who have opened their homes to their novelties-as 2 Timothy 3:6-7 states-then the whole letter falls into place. Note how these factors together explain (1) why Paul writes to Timothy, and not to the church as in other such cases, since his letter would not get a hearing in the hands of these elders; at the same time Paul is authorizing Timothy before the church to see that these elders are replaced by people with proper qualifications; (2) why he gives careful instructions, not about the duties of elders, but about their qualifications; (3) why he gives such detailed instructions about caring for older widows, while urging the younger ones, some of whom have already gone astray after Satan ( 1 Tim 5: 15), to marry-against his general advice in 1 Corinthians 7:40-and why he forbids them to teach in this setting (1 Tim 2:11 - 15); and (4) why, although his primary concern is for the gospel (1:11), Paul gives so little of its content in this letter-since Timothy does not need instruction here-and why on the other hand so much is said about the nature of the false teaching.

The false teaching seems to be a mixture of things Jewish and Greek. Errantly based on the law (1:7), it was full of Old Testament speculations ("myths and endless [wearisome] genealogies," 1:4); it was being presented as gnosis ("knowledge," 6:20) and appeared to have an esoteric and exclusivistic appeal (1:4-7; note in 2:1-7 and 4:10 that God wants all people to be saved), which included a false asceticism that denied the goodness of creation (4:3-5; perhaps 5:23). Beyond their teaching, Paul indicts the teachers for their love ofcontroversies, including battles over words (l:6;6:4), and especially for their greed (6:5-10; cf.3:3, "not a lover of money").

All in all, Paul has left Timothy with a very difficult assignment-which seems not to have been altogether successful in light of the evidence of 2 Timothy-making the words to Timothy all the more poignant. You might try to put yourself in Timothy's shoes as you read through the letter.




Despite their long and close relationship, note how Paul emphasizes here his apostleship and Timothy's being his "true son" (= legitimate child). This is surely for the sake of the church, in light of what they must hear from this letter.


First Charge to Timothy

This first charge (v. 3, renewed in v. 18) reminds Timothy of his duty to stop the false teaching (v. 3), which is then described (w. 4-11) in contrast to Paul's testimony (w. 12-17). Notice how the latter both articulates the content of the gospel and authorizes Paul's apostleship. Verse 15 gives the first of three trustworthy sayings cited in this letter (see 3:1 ; 4:9) and emphasizes that Christ came to save sinners (not ascetics). The renewed charge (1:18-20) reminds the church that Hymenaeus and Alexander have been disfellowshipped.


Instructions on Community Matters

The first matter Paul brings up is community prayer, that it is to be for "everyone" (v. 1), because God wants "all people" to be saved (w. 3-4), as Christ's sacrifice for "all people" is the sure evidence (w. 5- 6). This is followed by instruction about proper decorum at community prayer: When the men lift up their hands to pray, they are not to be soiled with the disputings of the false teachers (v. 8), and the women are not to dress seductively (for that culture), but to "wear" good deeds (w. 9-10); because of the influence of the younger widows (2:15 and 5:14 should be read side by side), Paul forbids women to teach (using Eve's deception by Satan that led to transgression as the biblical analogy for their being deceived by Satan; cf. 4:1 and 5: 15).


Qualifications for Church Leaders

With a second "trustworthy saying" (v. l), Paul offers the character qualifications for three kinds of leaders (the verb "is to be" in v.2 grammatically controls vv.2,8, and l2): overseers (lv. 1-7), deacons (w.8-10, l2), and women deacons ([v. l1], probably; certainly not "wives"). Note the singular lack of duties, except for "able to teach" in verse 2, and how many of these qualities stand in sharp contrast to what is said elsewhere of the false teachers.


The Purpose for the Letter

Paul writes so that God's people will know how to conduct themselves in God's household. They are to be God's temple (pillar and foundation) that preserves "the mystery from which true godliness springs," set forth in hymnic style in 3:16; this is set in direct contrast to the satanic teachings of the fallen elders (4:1-5). Note that the hymn emphasizes Christ's incarnation (line 1), apparently over against a false

asceticism (4:3-5), and the universal nature of the gospel (lines 4-5), over against the (apparent) exclusivism of such asceticism.


Renewed Charge to Timothy

As in chapter l, Timothy's charge is given over against the false teachers (vv. 6-8). The third trustworthy saying (v. 8) emphasizes that "training" in the godliness noted in 3:15-16 (versus ascetic "discipline") holds promise for life both in the present and the future, while the additional word about "labor" (: Paul's and Timothy's as ministers of the gospel) again emphasizes the universality of the gospel.

Notice how the rest of the charge (4:11-16), while clearly intended to bolster Timothy's courage, explicitly sets him before the congregation as a model to emulate-despite his youth-and reaffirms his ministry among them, before concluding with personal words.


On Windows and Elders (and Slaves)

Paul now specifies how to handle the two groups that have been causing the grief. After introductory words about all the people (5:1-2), he takes up in turn the younger widows (vv. 3-16) and the straying elders (vv. 17-25), concluding with instructions to slaves (6:1-2). Note how in both primary cases he first sets those who are going astray in contrast to those who are genuine. Thus the church is to care for "widows who are really in need" (5:3-9), but he counsels the younger ones to marry, bear children, and manage their households (vv.11-16).

Likewise, the church must honor (and pay) faithful elders (5: 17- 18), but try (with impartiality), dismiss, and replace "those who sin" (vv. 19-22, 24-25). The parenthetical word to Timothy (v.23) is probably for both his and the church's sake: "Keeping yourself pure" (v. 22) does not include (ascetic?) abstinence from wine, which Timothy needs for his health.


Final Indictment of the Teachers

Here Paul once more impeaches the false teachers for their love of controversy, but finally he scores them for their love of money. Note how he borrows here from the Old Testament Wisdom tradition (Job 1:21; Eccl 5:15).


Final Charge to Timothy

Note how, as in 4:l - 16, Timothy is once again set in contrast to the false teachers, with emphasis now on his persevering to the end, "which God will bring about in his own time." Verses 17 -19 qualify the indictment against greed in verses 6-10: Those who happen to be rich (in that culture, handed down as inheritance) are to be "rich in good deeds," especially in the form of generosity to the needy. Note how the sign-off (vv.20-21) summarizes Paul's urgencies; its abruptness highlights how urgent the matter is.

This letter's special contribution to the biblical story lies in its emphasizing

the role of good leadership for the sake of the people of God, thus

echoing the contrast between false and genuine prophets from the Old