I Timothy is the first in a group of epistles (I & II Timothy and Titus) written by Paul the Apostle and addressed to ministers, unlike his other letters that were directed toward churches (i.e. Ephesians, Corinthians) or to specific members (i.e. Philemon). Because they mainly deal with ministers and their work in the church, these writings have been referred to as the "pastoral" epistles by various scholars, the thought being that through these letters Paul was pastoring or shepherding these young preachers and guiding them in their work.
Today the pastoral epistles not only guide us in our Christian walk and direct us in the proper way to organize the church, they also provide the qualifications to look for when selecting spiritual leaders and define the basic work of the evangelist/preacher/minister in the local assembly.
I Timothy — Background
Before we look at the letters themselves, it would be helpful if we examined some background information to better understand the context in which Paul was speaking at the time.
When studying various epistles that describe events in the church of the first century we have to take into account the period of its development at the point of writing since it went through several important phases in a very short time. For example:
- Inception period – This took place on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, shortly after Jesus had ascended into heaven. At that time 3000 people were baptized on hearing Peter's first sermon concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event established the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:36-47).
- Expansion period – The church continued to grow in Jerusalem, but after a time expanded from its base in that city to neighboring towns and bordering countries. The great breakthrough came, however, when the Apostle Paul and his associates brought the gospel to many parts of the Roman Empire and churches were formed among the Gentiles.
- Consolidation period – At this point in its development the focus was on internal growth with the appointing of local leaders and an emphasis on church organization. For example, it was during this period that churches became self-supporting, not needing external help to financially maintain its ministers and work. Also, local ministers like Timothy and Titus were taking charge and thus lessening the burden for teaching and preaching that had been done by the Apostles and early missionaries.
I mention these three general periods because in his letters Paul deals with issues and problems encountered by churches in the consolidation period when assemblies were in the process of training and establishing leadership positions within the church. I and II Timothy and Titus are specifically addressed to two preachers who were working with churches that were already well established. I believe that studying these epistles will give us a view of the early church and its development, and will also guide us when selecting those who will serve as ministers, elders and deacons in the Lord's church of our day.
There is not a lot of information concerning Paul's first imprisonment in Rome, but it seems that after spending several years in Roman detention he finally went before the Emperor to plead his case and was successful (62 AD). While he was in prison, Paul's intention after his release was to go to Jerusalem for a time and then return to Rome to strengthen the church there and, finally, press on to Spain in order to open up new frontiers for the gospel. Once released, however, his plans changed. He did not go to Spain during his brief time of freedom, instead he chose to spend time in Crete (Titus 1:5), travel to Ephesus (I Timothy 1:3), return to Corinth (II Timothy 4), Miletus (II Timothy 4), and to Troas (II Timothy 4:13). It seems that he used his freedom to revisit and encourage established churches instead of moving on to plant new ones.
The letters to Timothy and Titus suggest that Paul was free and actively working with these men and other preachers to strengthen established churches as mentioned previously. In II Timothy the tone and situation will change. Paul will once again be in prison and this time will not have great hope of being released on account of the rising tide of Roman persecution.
During this brief period of freedom, however, Paul wrote this first letter to Timothy, a young evangelist, working with the church at Ephesus.
Who is Timothy?
We first encounter Timothy in (Acts 16:1) when Paul was on his second missionary journey. Timothy was a native of Lystra located in what was then Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). His mother, Eunice, was a Jewish Christian who along with her mother, Lois, raised Timothy to know the Scriptures which eventually led him to be converted. Timothy's father was Greek and a non-believer. This young man was converted by Paul (I Timothy 1:2) and he joined the Apostle's missionary journey in 51 AD.
Timothy's call to ministry was indicated by God (I Timothy 1:18), and he was commended to service by Paul and the elders (I Timothy 4:14). Along with Luke, he was one of Paul's closest traveling companions and served in many capacities but eventually was sent to Ephesus to minister to this fast-growing church.
We also know that he spent time in prison with Paul (Hebrews 13:23) and that he was timid by nature not dealing well with confrontation. He was also a man who suffered from stomach problems (I Timothy 5:23). Paul loved him like a son, was lonely without him and always worried about his condition. Tradition (not the Bible) says that Timothy died as a martyr under the reign of Nerva or Domitian. He was also believed to be a co-worker of John in this Apostle's later years.
This letter is personally addressed to Timothy while he was working with the church at Ephesus.
Ephesus was the place where Paul had enjoyed some of his greatest success during his 54 to 57 AD missionary effort. He had written to this church while in a Roman prison between 61-62 AD and then, after his release, visited them for a time and left Timothy there to minister. Paul had planned to return but was detained in Macedonia (northern Greece), so he wrote this letter to Timothy giving instructions about how the church should function and how an evangelist should minister to the church.
At the time of Paul's ministry in the second half of the first century, Asia Minor with Ephesus as its main city became the numerical and geographical center of Christianity. In 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army. This made Ephesus, with its many Christians and churches, an influential place for believers to gather. Paul had established a church there, missionary efforts to plant other churches in the region had been launched from there (i.e. Colossian church - Epaphras), Timothy was sent there to minister, and after Paul's death John the Apostle settled and pursued his ministry from this place.
Large public church buildings did not appear until the 3rd century, so early Christians met mostly in homes and in private meeting places. Each of these house-churches had its own leaders and each guided their own group. Paul is writing to Timothy about the conduct of these churches and the type of men needed to lead them during the difficult times they were experiencing because of persecution from the Roman government and division caused by false teachers promoting heretical teachings concerning the gospel.
The material contained in all three epistles suggests that Paul wrote these letters. Some people doubt his authorship claiming that the pastoral letters are the work of a later author, however Paul's name is used to introduce several doctrinal ideas. Some doubt Paul's authorship claiming that certain events mentioned in the letters do not fit with similar accounts described in the book of Acts. The response to this is that these letters were produced after the events written about by Luke in the book of Acts took place, and nothing in these letters contradict statements made by Paul in other New Testament epistles. In addition to this, there were no accusations of false authorship mentioned by church historians concerning these letters since they were universally accepted as legitimate early in church history.
I Timothy is a mixture of personal encouragement and teaching along with general instruction for the church at large. For this reason l Timothy is not easily structured into neat sections since Paul moves from one topic to another. Here is the outline I will use in our study:
- Greetings – 1:1-2
- Paul and Timothy – 1:3-20
- The church and prayer – 2:1-15
- The church and leadership – 3:1-16
- The church and apostasy – 4:1-16
- The church and different people – 5:1-6:2
- Final appeal – 6:3-21
Why Study I & II Timothy and Titus?
- They are one of the few source documents that teach about church administration and organization.
- They stress the importance of knowing and teaching sound doctrine.
- These letters demand holy living of both leaders and church members.
- They provide historical information about Paul and the church that we might not have otherwise.
- In these letters God speaks to the church today as He did then.
Heresy at Ephesus and Crete (I Timothy 1:1-3)
Paul writes to Timothy to help him deal with various issues that have come up in that congregation. Since Paul cannot be there in person, he provides Timothy with instructions that will guide the young evangelist in teaching and properly organizing the church that he serves at Ephesus.
1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope, 2To Timothy, my true child in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines,
- I Timothy 1:1-3
One of the motivating factors for this letter may have been an earlier meeting that Paul had with elders from Ephesus and the surrounding region while he was traveling to Jerusalem (Acts 20:17-32). During this meeting Paul encouraged these men to be diligent in carrying out their ministry and warned them to be wary of false teachers and their influence in the church (Acts 20:29-30).
It seems that despite Paul's warning, false teachers still managed to infiltrate the church and cause problems. The first letter to Timothy, therefore, deals with false teaching that had invaded the church at Ephesus which this young minister now had to contend with. Timothy needed to stand up to these heretics and provide correct teaching to counter or neutralize their errors.
The false teaching itself was complicated and not the type of thing that we are familiar with today. Understanding the nature of this heresy, however, will help us more fully appreciate Paul's teaching in this letter.
The false teaching was referred to as Gnosticism. This term comes from the Greek word "gnosis" which means knowledge or "to know." Gnosticism was produced by the mixing of a variety of knowledge sources. They mixed ideas from Greek philosophy (Plato), concepts from mystic and pagan religions, added teachings from Judaism as well as Christianity, all of which taken together produced a different gospel message. They promoted their teachings as a type of "super" gospel, but in reality their message was only partly true. One of the concrete doctrines produced by this Gnostic approach was something called "Dualism."
Dualism taught the following:
- There were only two elements in the world: God/mind, matter/flesh.
- Both of these were eternal in nature.
- God/mind was good and matter/flesh was totally evil.
- Human beings were a combination of the two.
- They had flesh, therefore they were totally evil because the flesh corrupted the mind.
- They taught that in order to obtain salvation, the spirit in man had to escape the flesh in man.
- When this was done the spirit/mind of man could return to God where it belonged and be at peace.
- They also taught that there were two different ways that this escape from the flesh could be accomplished:
- Strict asceticism - (l Timothy 4) which included:
- Food laws
- Forbidding marriage
- The spirit had to dominate the flesh - The error here, of course, was the false notion that one could be saved by works of the Law (the Jewish Law) or of the flesh and not by grace through faith as Paul had originally taught them (Ephesians 2:8).
- Antinomianism (complete indulgence of the flesh)
- No law or restrictions
- Complete sensual freedom
- Strict asceticism - (l Timothy 4) which included:
In essence they taught that since the spirit and flesh were separate, one didn't affect the other so a person could do what they wanted in the flesh without affecting the spirit, which would ultimately be free once the flesh died.
The error here was that according to the gospel, a soul could not sin without consequences from God who judged and punished all sin (Romans 6:15).
It wasn't bad enough that this Gnostic doctrine of dualism was circulating in the church, what made matters worse was that people were arguing and debating these things!
In addition to the spread of these doctrines, there were two destructive features being created in the character of those who were embracing these false notions.
The first of these was an incessant discussion and argument about matters that the Bible didn't even address rather than the study and the discussion of what it actually taught.
- What will I look like in heaven?
- What did Jesus look like?
- When is Jesus coming back?
Intense examination of biblical gossip, traditions, myths, genealogies and ideas which some people thought were important but not biblical, much like the interest in the "Shroud of Turin" or the "Da Vinci Code" movies and books today.
These things make for good entertainment perhaps but have zero value in the Christian's understanding of salvation or effort at righteous living, serving others, or glorifying and pleasing God. These type of things then and now only generated endless speculation and arguments without edifying anyone. They were majoring in minors and this led to the second deadly attitude that was affecting the church at Ephesus:
Pride is the root of most false teaching. Some are too egotistical to submit to God's word or too lazy to study it. Others are too proud to admit error and too stubborn to change.
In Ephesus some false teachers had the vain conviction that only they had access to the special gnosis, this secret knowledge, and thus only they could show others the way to receive it. This, of course, was not only wrong, it was dangerous.
16All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
- II Timothy 3:16-17
Dangerous because this attitude created pride and competition among teachers, and a resistance to hear the teaching from the Apostles or others, like Timothy, who had been trained and sent by the Apostles. Paul, knowing about these issues, writes to a young minister who is trying to cope with these disruptions in the church.
Timothy is young, he's unsure of himself, he has a nervous stomach and he's facing men who are proud and argumentative about their new and superior knowledge, their new "gnosis."
Paul writes to challenge, instruct and provide Timothy with teaching and solid apostolic guidance so he can go forward and teach God's word with confidence in order to settle the disruption caused by the promoters of this heretical doctrine.