From: Comparative Commentary to 1 Timothy Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2020
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The Apostolic Greeting
TCNT: 1 From Paul, an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the appointment of God, our Saviour, and Christ Jesus, our Hope. 2 To Timothy, my true Child in the Faith, may God, the Father, and Christ Jesus, our Lord, bless you, and be merciful to you, and give you peace.
The epistle begins as would most correspondence of that day: the writer is identified, along with his title or distinguishing description, the intended recipient is stated, and a wish for his well being and success—a “blessing” in typical Christian terminology. In this case the apostle Paul is sending a letter to an individual rather than a church—though it would be nothing short of incredible if he did not intend for its words and contents to be promptly shared since it lays down organizational guidelines for the congregation and rules of proper behavior for all its members. The direct recipient is Timothy who he regards with great affection (“a true son in the faith”) and for whom he wishes Divine blessings.
Paul’s identification of himself as an “apostle” carries with it the claim of great authority and responsibility. “He often laid stress upon his apostleship, and not with out good reason, for if it had not been recognized [as such] he would have been powerless to mould the Churches, which by God’s blessing he had been enabled to form.”
An “apostle” was a person sent to represent another; the higher the sender the more important his delegate. Such an individual acts upon the instructions of his sender and carries authority to implement his sender’s directives. He is, if you will, an “ambassador” but one with the freedom to do whatever is most appropriate to assure that his sender’s policies are implemented.
Since he has this status due to Jesus’ decision to give it to him, it follows that he has been full authority “to speak and act on His behalf.” The Master will back him fully in exercising that authority and He expects those hearing and reading the message to recognize that in defying it one would be not only defying Paul but also the very Lord they claimed as Redeemer. It would never be a choice between the apostle and Jesus but between receiving both or neither.
was not one of the original twelve apostles, it was quite appropriate that he
specify why he was due that term:
“by the commandment of God.” It
was not even Jesus alone who was envolved in
the selection. Both the Father and
the Son were. Hence Paul was not
arrogating the title to himself due to pride and haughtiness. He had not been self-selected for the
post. He had it only by the direct
intervention of God Himself, who had His Son appear to him on the road to
Since Paul normally described his appointment as “by the will of God,” the substitution of “commandment” makes the matter even more emphatic. For one thing anything he said on the subject matters of the epistle might be challenged. No, the teachings aren’t about “great religious doctrines,” but they are about things like the proper organization and functioning of a congregation and anyone who doesn’t believe that brethren can become obnoxious and troublesome over such (comparatively) “simple and mundane” matters has simply no experience of our brothers and sisters when they “get their dander up.”
But what Paul said was both appropriate and right and by invoking the concept of “commandment” the apostle “wanted Timothy to realize afresh, and any others who would read the epistle, that he was not expressing his own ideas, but was a man under authority and that authority was nothing less than the authority of God Himself.” In other words, he said what he said because he had no honorable alternative but to do so.
Even so, there was unquestionably profound irony in God’s choice of him as an apostle. At the time he was a notorious persecutor and the best thing he could seemingly offer the church was to disappear and never be seen again. Yet God saw his potential and he was designated to the name and role of an apostle—not because of what he had been, but because of what he could become. The same is true of our individual salvation. Whatever our own, private “bag of evils” that we bring with us to conversion, He accepts us because He knows that His grace working in us can transform us in ways we never would have even thought to attempt.
Twice in this verse we read references to “Jesus Christ.” Interestingly, the NKJV follows the KJV precedent of reversing this to “Christ Jesus.” The Textus Receptus preserves “Christ Jesus” and in doing so reflects the majority of manuscripts; “critical texts,” however, reverse the order. All our nine comparative translations embrace the latter except for the ISV, which modifies the wording to “Messiah Jesus” in both cases.
Some have argued that “Jesus Christ” puts first an emphasis on the physical humanity of the Lord, that He came in a body of flesh and blood. In contrast “Christ Jesus” stresses His salvation and “theological” role in the Divine scheme of things. There certainly seems to be a sound logic to this reasoning.
Both readings would have relevance in the current context. That of “Jesus Christ” (which is the reading of the majority of manuscripts) stresses that the appointment came from the same person who, in physical form, had appointed all the other apostles. That of “Christ Jesus” would stress the unique role of Jesus as the “Anointed” one of prophecy and as savior of mankind.
Although we most naturally connect the term “Savior” with Jesus, our present text (1:1) links it to the Father instead. Lumping the “Pastorals” together, we find the linkage to the Father on six occasions and to the Son on four. In 2 Thessalonians our salvation (our “everlasting consolation and good hope by grace”) is attributed to both Father and Son. Although Paul does not describe God alone in this manner anywhere else in his non-“Pastoral” epistles, the concept is clearly found in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”
The title was
familiar to the Hebrew religion and often occurs in the LXX.; see Psalms 24:5,
61:7; Isaiah 12:2; Wisdom of Solomon 16:7; Baruch 4:22; 3 Maccabees
7:16. We have it also in Philo (de migr. Abr.
5, de Vita cont. 11), and in the Sibylline
Oracles (iii. 35).
Furthermore, the application of “Savior” to the Father as well as the son was quite logical because it was ultimately the Father’s decision to utilize His Son as the means of reconciling the human race to their Creator. In the famous words from John 3: “(16) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (17) For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
In contrast with the description of the Father, Jesus is given two descriptions: “Lord” (both verses 1 and 2) and “hope” (verse 1). Of course neither epithet is exclusive to either—our “hope,” for example, is applied to the Father in 1 Peter 1:21. The Father is “Lord of heaven and earth” as Jesus Himself testified (Matthew ). Jesus is Lord by appointment: He has been appointed king over God’s kingdom, to reign until He returns to destroy death (1 Corinthians ), at which point He will return the kingdom to the Father (verse 24). Since all this is by appointment, it is hardly surprising to have Jesus tell His disciples in the Great Commission, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).
The image of God as our “Father” stresses the kinship we have by being adopted into the family of God through conversion. The fact that Jesus is “Lord” shows that the Father’s power is now being exercised through Christ. He is the one in charge, our leader, our chief --better yet, perhaps, our “Commander-in-Chief.”
Jesus is called our “hope” in verse 1 because not everything He has promised—such as the resurrection from the dead and a home in heaven—has yet occurred. In Colossians we read the description, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The indwelling Christ is the promise that these promises will be fulfilled if we are but faithful. He has promised the joys of heaven and eternal life and through His miracles and resurrection from the dead He amply demonstrated that He could deliver on His promises. Hence we have a fact based foundation on which to build our confidence that His pledges will be completely fulfilled.
We have placed our trust and confidence in Him. And His life’s pattern of performing miracles and being physically resurrected from the dead verified that behind Him stands the power to accomplish anything and everything He has promised. Hence our “hope” is not an empty dream—but one firmly rooted in the evidence from the history of Jesus’ ministry and His death defying triumph over His most dangerous enemies.
Ellicott suggests that we need to give “our hope” its most encompassing possible definition and meaning: “Not only the object of it, nor the author of it, but its very substance and foundation.” He is both the anticipation and the reality of everything we have been promised.
And because He is, we can absolutely trust everything that He has promised to us. Nothing ever will fail.
Just as we normally expect the word “savior” to be linked with “Jesus” rather than the Father, similarly we expect the word “apostle” to be similarly linked. Yet here also Paul shifts our normal expectations when he speaks of the apostleship as being by “the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words the apostles in general and Paul in particular were selected by the joint decision of both.
In Jesus’ own teaching we find it occasionally stressed that what He did exactly matched what the Father wanted done. To cite only two passages:
John 8: 28 Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things. 29 And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.” 30 As He spoke these words, many believed in Him.
John 12: 48 He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. 49 For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.”
So when Jesus made men apostles, He did so because the decision was pleasing both to himself and to the Father. Which is not in the least surprising since “in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
Paul confidently describes Timothy in verse 2 as “a true son in the faith.” The equivalent, “My genuine child,” is the way some render the point (God’s Word, ISV, NET). Either way, Timothy not only has the appropriate veneer of a faithful Christian; he unquestionably has the substance as well. Paul is putting his seal of approval upon the man. Whatever human weaknesses he may have, he is still a person fully dedicated to serving God.
Furthermore, Paul clearly regards him as his own “son in the faith.” The NKJV’s insertion of “a son” is almost universally rejected in our sample translations. Only the GW keeps it, while everyone else substitutes “my.” Ellicott quite reasonably suggests, “ ‘Son’ denotes the affectionate as well as spiritual nature of the connection. ‘Own’ specifies the genuineness and reality of it. ‘In faith’ marks the sphere in which such a connection is alone felt and realized.”
Quite a few translations share with the TCNT substitute the rendering “true [or genuine] child in the faith” (ESV, God’s Word, Holman, ISV, NASB, NET, WEB). These various renditions grow out of the fact that the underlying Greek describes the legitimacy of a child born to an individual and these are applications of this imagery to a spiritual relationship: Timothy is counted as much a spiritual and genuine offspring (= convert) of the apostle as he would be counted as offspring if their relationship had been based on a physical father-son relationship instead.
Pointing to Titus (1:4) as a parallel case, Mark Harding notes that on a spiritual level, “None other than the apostle Paul is their ‘father.’ There is nothing spurious about their grasp of the faith. They bear the image and likeness of their spiritual father.”
To the recipient congregations, this carried the message: If you would hear and embrace my message, then hear and embrace their message for they are both proclaiming the same thing as me. To Timothy and Titus the message is the flip side of the same thing: If you count yourself as my son make sure that the only thing you teach is that which is in conformity with the instructions I’ve provided you.
“My genuine child in the faith.” If one were writing a letter to one’s literal child, these type of words would surely carry the “freight” of kindness, consideration, even tenderness—an acknowledgement of that very special relationship that their linkage together has created. This is because Timothy is a spiritual offspring of Paul through his role in bringing him to the Lord. There is a parallel to the physical link caused by literally fathering a child: You have brought into being someone who had not yet existed. In other words, a truly and fully spiritual Timothy had not existed prior to the relationship with Paul.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he wishes to convey a similar thought to Timothy as well. A voice of reassurance. A voice of encouragement. A voice linking them together in serving the Lord. There would unquestionably be difficult times Timothy would face in dealing with the problems of the congregation. Remembering Paul’s unwillingness to physically and emotionally “collapse” in the face of opposition, he himself would be encouraged to persist even in times of difficulty.
And also a very soft reminder to
the Ephesians who would read this epistle or hear it read to them in the
congregational meeting, that there is a special man-to-man relationship that
these two have that goes far beyond “superior to inferior.” It tells them that Timothy has no choice but
to do what he has to do, because Paul has given him the duty and obligation to
do these things. It also cautions them
that if they resist what must be done, they will not only be resisting the preacher
Timothy but also his apostle-father Paul as well. In light of the clear problems
Three Divine blessings Paul wishes for Timothy, “Grace, mercy, and peace.” These three are intimately related. Although one could theoretically skewer these three apart, it is hard to imagine that actually happening in real life: They are all powerfully interlocked into a “trinity” of Divine favor. (1) Grace produces mercy; mercy produces peace with God. (2) Because we have Divine mercy we have been proved to be blessed with Divine favor (grace) and have been reconciled with God (peace). (3) Because we have peace with God—which can only be obtained on God’s terms and not our own--we obviously have been blessed with Divine grace and mercy as well.
These blessings come “from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.” Both play a role: the Father in approving these blessings be granted and Jesus by coming to earth, dying for our sins, and paying the price to reconcile mankind with the Divine. Both were required for us to obtain them.
The Obligation to Discourage the Teaching of
Anything Else than Gospel Values
TCNT: 3 I beg you, as I did when I was on my way into Macedonia, to remain at Ephesus; that you may instruct certain people there not to teach new and strange doctrines, 4 nor to devote their attention to legends and interminable genealogies, which tend to give rise to argument rather than to further that divine plan which is revealed in the Faith. 5 The object of all instruction is to call forth that love which comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a sincere faith.
6 And it is because they have not aimed at these things that the attention of certain people has been diverted to unprofitable subjects. 7 They want to be Teachers of the Law, and yet do not understand either the words they use, or the subjects on which they speak so confidently.
8 We know, of course, that the Law is excellent, when used legitimately, 9 by one who recognizes that laws were not made for good men, but for the lawless and disorderly, for irreligious and wicked people, for those who are irreverent and profane, for those who ill treat their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the immoral, for people guilty of sodomy, for slave-dealers, for liars, for perjurers, and for whatever else is opposed to sound Christian teaching—11 as is taught in the glorious Good News of the ever-blessed God, with which I was entrusted.
on the assumption that Timothy had remained, as instructed, in
“As I urged you” argues that the instruction he gave on that occasion remained valid and compelling: Stay where you are! Was Timothy discouraged as time had passed and things were not yet all that much better? Continued problems can wear down any preacher!
Hence Paul had “urged” him to tackle “some” (1:3) who needed correction on attitudes, actions, and assumptions that either could or were leading them astray. The exact point in the process is not specified, presumably because for each person it likely varied.
“Some” would seem to argue that it was a relatively modest number—so far, at least. (Alternative translations—see below—carry that freight implicitly; the rendering of “some” makes it explicit. Of course, the larger the congregation the larger numerical number “some” might constitute!) Timothy was to make sure the number did not grow and, if possible, to convince these who had of the error of their way.
Although the language could indicate only that Paul had heard of the problem in vague terms, others see here a derogatory implication (cf.: “look at how few are this foolish!”) and that Paul was well aware of the identity of certain of them but chooses not to cite examples. The way Paul handles the matter would, if you will, “depersonalize” the issue from one of specific individuals to one of specific behavior.
bulk of versions stick with “urged” (ESV, Holman, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV, WEB). The GW tempers
down the passion of the request to “I encouraged you.” In contrast,
Paul did not simply “ask” or “suggest”—he “urged” or “begged.” Yet it was clearly not a stern and arbitrary “command” either. He wasn’t being ordered around—in the sense that a dictator or high ranked military officer might do. Paul clearly had affection for the young preacher and teacher, but it was not that alone which kept him from trying to play the role of a spiritual dictator. When all is said and done, God wants a willing and volunteer army. Not a coerced one.
Clearly going to
is the possibility that Timothy was outright unhappy with the proposal of going
from the formidable task proposed to him.
He saw its vital importance and its difficulties too, and perhaps his
natural timidity tempted him to exaggerate these. He was subject to moods of discouragement
(compare 2 Timothy 1:7-8; 2:1-13; 4:5). It was only after
earnest and affectionate persuasion on the part of Paul that he at length
consented to undertake the difficult work.
It was impossible for him to resist the pleading of his father in the
gospel; and, fearful and hesitating, his instinctive obedience led him to
comply. When he parted from
Duty is not always
easy: the more difficult it is, the
greater the honor and the more distinguished the reward. St. Ambrose relates a legend that, when
persecution arose in
Those being criticized are called “some” and this is
normally changed to “certain”—which carries much the same
implication as to the limited number of such individuals. That is followed by either “people” (GW,
Holman, ISV, NET, NIV), “persons” (ESV,
Not that Paul would be unwilling to tackle the outsider on such matters in order to expose his lack of clear thinking, but even in that case would not his priority be on converting the person and anything said at all be built around that core goal? And there is nothing in the following verses to suggest that such confused outsiders are what Timothy would be facing rather than misleaded individuals within the Christian community. In addition, since the problem that exists is described as if an internal one, would not those individuals be the intended target of the preacher’s message?
Not that certain Christians had not already been effectively disowned due to their spiritual extremism. Paul speaks in verse 20 of “Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” However he speaks of them as having shipwrecked their faith (verse 19) and that would argue that either they were not part of the congregation anymore—wherever this happened at—or they were recognized as unsavory “fringe” characters at the very best: “Hangers on,” rejected as outsiders, but who never quite got around to leaving.
Hymenaeus and Alexander are presented as if they manifested the kind of local mentality Timothy is facing—but at its fully developed and most dangerous form. They are introduced without details, as if both they and what Paul did with them are well known. In effect, Timothy is warned to learn of the intense degree of danger the congregation is facing from what had to be done with these individuals.
they and the local “problem children” were known to each other or members of a
recognizable subculture similar to that within Ephesian
Christianity, even having periodic or ongoing communications or other
relationship with them. Whether true or
not, they are clearly presented as recognizable prototypes for what might well need
to occur in
The word here is parangeiles and is typically used of when a military leader or judicial official is laying out their decision. Hence, “Perhaps the imagery entailed that Timothy was ‘to stand before the Ephesian church and, as if he were a general or a judge, strictly, officially, and authoritatively to command the false teachers to stop.’ ”
Although there is certainly a major element of truth in this—if the inspired apostle said such things were wrong, how in the world could either Timothy or the Ephesian church members think it wise to do differently? But to others who are more ambiguous about such matters, won’t the priority be to back up the command with powerful arguments as well? For example, rebuking “fables and endless genealogies” makes total sense. But won’t the logic of the prohibition be further enhanced when Timothy hits hard on the “disputes” that can (and surely had) already grown out of such (verse 4)? This is not just “theology” in the strict sense; it is common sense.
In like manner, rebuking those who leave behind “a good conscience” will become far more powerful when Timothy emphasizes the “idle talk” that they know full well could and had grown out of it (verse 6). You judge the “tree” by its “fruits”--as Jesus Himself had taught (Luke -45). Similarly the young man was to stress the absurdity of accepting people as “teachers of the law” when they didn’t know what they were talking about. Weren’t the locals likely to have the scarred memories of such cases that Timothy could work from?
Yes, Timothy had the authority to command, but if he couldn’t also convincingly make the case for the inherent logic of the command, would he be anywhere near as successful in his mission?
Some find Paul assuming that his
apostolic authority is so firmly recognized—and that of Timothy as his
representative—that the admonition to stop these teachings will be
automatically heeded. Perhaps. But there is a profound difference between
“should” and “would.” The mere
presentation of truth is sufficient to convince some individuals to
reform. But with many
others—most? —the why it is reasonable and necessary is also essential,
especially when a pattern of misconduct has engrained itself into behavior, as at
Agent or “Successor” of Paul?
Perry L. Strepp describes Timothy’s role in this way: “Paul gives Timothy the standing needed to correct false teaching and to discipline apostate church leaders by making Timothy his successor through this letter.” He repeats this idea of “succession” and “successor” repeatedly though the mind easily rebels at the language.
Timothy possibly be an apostle? He had
never seen Jesus miraculously (as did Paul on the road to
In a footnote he concedes that apostolic succession is not under discussion and objects to religious liberals who point this out. They, he insists, are using the terminology in a “political (rather than an historical) understanding of succession. . . . But because of a lack of historical perspective, they do not see that the succession allows for differences in degree and kind. . . . Paul can make Timothy his successor in a task, and the succession be real and effective, without Paul having to pass on his apostolic office to Timothy.”
If the language is so clearly misleading to many--as he clearly concedes--why use it in the first place? Should it not be abandoned? (And misleading not just to religious liberals either!)
Even taking his approach, Timothy is Paul’s “successor” only in the very broad sense that he would be doing the same thing Paul was doing and acting by the same standards. Was that not true of any and all faithful gospel preachers of the day and not Timothy alone? Have we not torn the “successor” motif into shreds by this point?
involved as a--not the participant--in appointing some
elders: In Acts 14 we learn that in the
churches in the region of “Lystra, Iconium, and
Indeed, is not Paul setting the precedent that any and all proper ministers of the gospel were to work by these standards and therefore had appointment power if they embraced these obligatory criteria? If not, what of the other duties given Timothy, such as resisting the bending of revealed doctrine? Did the obligation of ministers to do such cease to exist when Timothy or Titus were not the ones doing it?
Hence it would seem far sounder ground to simply conclude that Paul is laying down criteria for any minister facing the needs of a local congregation. In any age. Whether the elders are appointed by Timothy, Titus, or anyone else. In that age or ours.
And by writing what he does, Paul assures that both they—and us of today—know what the proper criteria are. But he does far more than that: He provides a broader picture of the proper goals of all faithful gospel ministers in any age.
First, Timothy was to assure that the locals “teach no other doctrine” (1:3). Paul is clearly working from the same principle as Jude: “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Verse 3). It was not only a body of doctrine (“the faith), it was also the permanently authoritative body of doctrine (“once for all”). The reference to “the faith,” clearly refers not to who they believe (i.e., Jesus) but to a body of doctrine so complete they had the whole thing. How could something partial, incomplete, a mere patch work fall into such a category? The bulk of it they already had and even what is being transmitted in the later epistles is at most, comparatively speaking, merely the final touches on the completed portrait.
Paul is writing in the last years of his life so this acceptance of an already existing body of established and authoritative “doctrine” would hardly be surprising. It’s some 35 or so years after Jesus’ death. How could one possibly conceive of everything essential not being available after so many years? A reaffirmation of already accepted truth might well be delivered by inspiration: Paul clearly views himself as doing that in the current epistle. . . . it is about things they already know. . . . or have no excuse not knowing. For the same reason we have other later written epistles found in the New Testament presenting the same truths already known and recognized as authoritative among those following the apostles. Worded differently, perhaps, from what they were used to but reflecting the same core teachings and principles--upholding them both for the “now” as well as for the future: We have “the doctrine,” “the faith”--embrace and uphold it!
recognizes that there are certain individuals in
Comparative translations: Our alternates stress that “other doctrine” should be taken as something seriously out of line with the truth. Not just a “minor” difference, but something of real substance and significance, with the inference that this could too easily set the stage for adoption of even greater out of kilter ideas.
brings this out with the least stress on the degree of difference (ESV, Holman,
there are the stronger readings of “erroneous teaching” (
Secondly, Timothy was to discourage listening to and becoming enchanted by mere fables: “nor give heed to fables” (1:4). “Give heed to” carries the idea of strongly emphasizing. The Greek term meant that one “devote[s] much time, energy and attention to something.” They are not merely interested in them; they are passionately interested.
Hence the language of “devote
themselves to,” language preferred by the ESV and NIV. When the GW, ISV, and NET speak of
“occupy/occupying themselves with,” we also have the
intended emphasis on heavily doing so.
In one sense “pay attention to” (Holman, NASB, WEB) seems a weaker way
of making the point—but not if it carries the intended interpretive gloss of needlessly. The better way to make that point would be by
making the allusion blunter. Such as in
To go outside our preferred consultation list, the Contemporary English Version hits the nail on the head with, “warn them to stop wasting their time on senseless stories and endless lists of ancestors.” The Common English Bible speaks of “causes useless guessing games.”
“Fables” is retained by only one of
our comparative works (
To use a modern parallel: Myths like George Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac River and fables like Paul Bunyan can be enjoyable, entertaining, and pleasant to hear. But were we to weave them into a mystical system that is authoritative over us--one that we feel a virtual obligation to embrace and which provides otherwise unknown exotic insights into spiritual reality--they escalate from mere entertainment into something far more serious. In other words, they become the bedrock of an alternative religious system. We leave behind the sound foundation of scripture and start to build our spirituality upon the crumbling rock of tales and conjectures that never happened in the first place. “Truth” is no longer built upon historical reality, but upon fantasies that please us.
Although the New Testament has its fill of doctrine and “theology,” it is grounded in this world history, not in made up stories intended by delusionary souls to embody supposed spiritual truths and insight and which could easily work to cram out real world events. Think, for example, of the ancient myth that Jesus Christ did not “really” die on the cross. Only the “Jesus” part did while the “Christ” part was removed prior to the death. In contrast the person known as and who lived as Jesus Christ did indeed lay down His life that day and that is the testimony of all four gospels and conveys the testimony of those who had been there that evil day.
The Christian emphasis on real life truth rather than theological web spinning is brought out most explicitly in the Introduction to both Luke and Acts:
1 Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed. (Luke 1)
1 The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2 until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, 3 to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Acts 1)
Nor is this element absent even in the gospel of John. Of the misunderstood promise that John could live until Jesus returned, the apostle emphasizes that it was not a pledge that this would happen but an assertion that if it happened it was still irrelevant to everyone else (John 21:23). And he had to have this right because what he wrote was eyewitness testimony. Not to mention that this was the case throughout this fourth gospel: “This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true, and there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:24-25)
The “living till Christ returns” was a myth that evolved inside the Christian community and the apostle refuses to give countenance to it. Christianity was to be fact based and not a mere theology masquerading like it was the historical truth.
What specific types of myths does Paul have in mind in 1 Timothy? The term “fable” itself is so broad it could represent a tale from virtually any source. It is explicitly applied to Jewish ones in Titus and to worldly exaggerations wrought by overworked minds and adopted by credulous old women in 1 Timothy 4:7. Hence interpreters have a field day as to specifically what Paul has in mind, “Expositors are hopelessly disagreed, some referring it to Jewish, others to Gnostic fancies. It is explained as meaning traditional supplements to the law, allegorical interpretations, Jewish stories of miracles, Rabbinical fabrications, whether in history or doctrine, false doctrines generally, etc.”
Hence it is safest to conclude that Paul has in mind an entire class or type of tale—any and all such stories--used to undermine sound spiritual thinking rather than only some one specific type. In other words, the specific source was of only marginal concern to him. What was pivotal was the abuse of common sense in the interpretation of texts and facts and the foolishness of assuming that one’s imaginative reconstruction of the “true” meaning could be substituted for the sound foundation of the Divinely revealed doctrines provided through Jesus and His apostles.
If these were allegorical “interpretations” of the Torah and Prophets--note the quotation marks--it well exhibits the difference between rooting teaching in the solid ground of scriptural text versus using it “as the starting point for the exposition of our own pet theories. Calling these ‘Christian’ or ‘orthodox’ or ‘sound doctrine’ does not make them so.”
Whatever the “hidden” truths they were such pseudo-masters of, the delusional approach was still in its infancy. Paul recognized that it would get stronger and ultimately become very dangerous (4:1-5). Those who preserved and promoted the apostolic message were inherently impediments to this, but when a generation or two passed away the strongest obstacles—first hand witnesses of apostolic teaching—would no longer be around to oppose what was happening.
This would not guarantee that such fantasies became dominant, but it would make it far easier. Hence the church historian Eusebius seems soundly based when he describes the chronology of the growth of the Gnostic forms in particular: “as soon as the apostles and those who had listened to them with their own ears had passed away, the conspiracy of godless error took its rise through the deceit of false teachers, who endeavoured with brazen face to preach their knowledge falsely so called in opposition to the preaching of the truth.”
Thirdly, Timothy was to discourage those envolved
in ancestral obsession: “Endless
genealogies,” he calls their addiction (1:4). There aren’t that
many ways to convey the idea of the listing of an extended family ancestry, so
it is not surprising that all of our comparison translations retain it—except
The most common use of “pedigree”
is in regard to animals but the use of it in regard to humans is certainly not
unknown. Far more so
on the English side of the
One would expect “fables” to appeal more to Gentiles than to Jews and genealogical obsession to be a more likely fault of the Jews due to the ancestor lists found in the Old Testament. On the other hand neither of these had to have such connections and members of either community might become intrigued by either or both. Certainly it was far from uncommon for important Romans to trace their ancestry back to famous figures; the fact they may not have existed mattered little. (In visible contrast to the Jewish attitude.)
Although it is useful for analysis to separate “fables” from “endless genealogies” since either could be used to distract from what is genuinely of spiritual importance, if we read it as one on-going expression, then it would refer to the fables encompassed in and on which the genealogies are based. If these are said to be “my” genealogy one could well see why they could feed the ego rather than the soul.
They also can become “endless genealogies” because of the time wasted upon accumulating and “documenting” them. Hence the “endless” has been taken as meaning “without object, useless. (So Chrysostom, Holtzmann, and von Soden.) Others take it in a popular sense, as describing the tedious length of the genealogies (Alford); and others that these matters furnish an inexhaustible subject of study (Weiss).”
If one assumes that it is all intended to be one fault rather than two, the translation would be something along the like of “endless genealogies about mythical beings” or “myths about an endless succession of ancestors.” The same basic approach leads another to suspect that it “refer[s] to allegorical speculations on the basis of Old Testament accounts of creation and subsequent prehistory.” That scholar sees a possible support for this in the Jewish philosopher-theologian Philo lumping the entire period through the providing of the law to Moses as the “Book of Genealogies.”
The bulk of translations decline to embrace such an approach and continue to separate the two as if they are intended to be considered separate faults rather than merely one. And there is the related controversy of whether Paul has in mind one or two specific types of speculation or whether he targets those who waste their time in vain, fruitless, unprovable, and wasted “intellectual” pursuits of any and all kinds. Things that can never be nailed down with finality and that, even if you could, would probably accomplish nothing useful in the first place. The wasted and vain effort would still be present either way.
Some suggest that these folk were those who found controversies an enticing end in and of themselves rather than ones that would actually benefit themselves if they could conclusively be resolved. Are they what we today would dismiss as “armchair experts”? We dismiss “certain types of experts as [merely] people with ‘their charts and graphs.’ ” In other words their problem—and that of these first century Christians—was not so much that their theories were wrong (though they probably were far more times than not) but that they represented wasted effort even if they turned out to be right!
The relationship to Gnosticism: Later critics like Irenaeus (writing c. 180s) speaks of contemporary Gnostics matching the criteria of behavior that Paul lays down in verses 1 and 4:
Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations. These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. . . . By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them. . . .
He doesn’t quite introduce the then current Gnostic movements as “fulfilling” Paul’s words in the sense of accomplishing a predicted event. Rather he describes them as doing the same thing that Paul had condemned at an earlier time.
In Against the Valentinians Tertullian wrote compactly and directly of how the Gnostic doctrine of aeons had become interlocked with scenarios of genealogies and uses the latter as descriptive of the former:
To take another instance: if someone knowledgeable in our faith comes to these tales and immediately finds so many names of Aeons, so many marriages, so many offspring, so many dooms, so many adventures, joys, sorrows of a scattered and fragmentary godhead, will he hesitate then and there to call these the “myths and endless genealogies” which the apostle's inspiration had already condemned even then when these heretical seeds were sprouting? (Chapter 3)
Tertullian himself uses “distancing rhetoric” to show that
whatever was present in Timothy’s
It might well be a logical way to describe them, however, but it wasn’t the way they themselves did. It could also be “sermonically appropriate” to apply the language in this way since at least a loose conceptual parallel might well be found. But as an allusion to anything close to what existed in Paul’s day—no, it would be argued.
Whatever specific annoyance these fantasies caused the apostle, he obviously abhors them as a spiritual waste of time as well. We see this as he explains why he wants Timothy to discourage such obsessions: they “cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (1:4). That has to especially apply to the category nearest this condemnation, the “endless genealogies.” Something that is perceived as (virtually at least) “endless” is obviously going to produce disputations as to how one dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. Not to mention on broader questions of accuracy, reliability, and usefulness. There are just too many opportunities for it to produce conflict as rival egos lock horns with competing analyses!
But the principle also has clear application to the non-apostolic doctrine found in the “fables” as well. Either mythical ancestral links or “tall tales” from an overworked imagination could become the breeding ground for the erection of a new faith system to replace apostolic Christianity. Of course we are talking about the result, rather than the intent. If today a religious body has drifted an amazing distance from anything that might be called “Biblical” and still has the gall to describe itself as “Christianity,” why would we expect early believers to have been any different? Hence we find in the next few centuries Gnostic groups claiming the mantle of the faith of Jesus while gutting it of the Christ and apostolic foundations--replacing them with enchanting myths that became their center of attention.
But before we depart this mini-section, note that Paul’s criticism targets the fact that they “cause disputes.” This is because “disputes” naturally grow directly out of competing “fables” and the endless speculative genealogies. Especially if we emphasize the “fables” part we can easily understand the preference of some translations for:
“which cause disputes” (WEB)
“promote speculations” (ESV)
“promote empty speculations” (Holman)
“promote useless speculations” (NET)
“promote controversies” (ISV)
“promote controversial speculations” (NIV)
“such as lead to controversy” (
“give rise to mere speculation” (NASB)
GW settles for “raise a lot of
questions” but since when are questions inherently bad? Unless one wishes to add words such as “endless”
or “needless” to express the reason for the futility of what is being
done. Similarly both
The reason for the substitution of different wording--“disputes, speculations, controversies”-- is rooted in a lack of direct evidence as to the meaning of the Greek text. The Greek behind “disputes” is found only in the present passage and can’t be documented in any non-Biblical Greek source either. This lack of clarity might be the reason that some copyists substituted “philosophical inquiries.” But that meaning also lacks any Greek language documentation as well. Hence translations fall back upon what they perceive as the intent of the criticism in its current context —and one can easily understand why “fables” could lead to such empty-meaning controversies and even disputes over purported genealogy for that matter.
It should be noted that Paul makes no effort to refute these troublemakers’ theology. That surely implies that he was confident that Timothy already knew quite well how to handle that particular problem. Instead he wants to drive home that this is not mere harmless foolishness. It has a damaging influence on the congregation through the troubles it causes. The details of misguided theology may be hard to grasp; the blatantly obvious results are something else again.
As Ben Witherington III rightly notes, this is a variant of Jesus’ argument that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew ). “The faith had been turned into some sort of game of intellectual speculation that was leaving some behind and failing to reform character.”
Having stressed the folly of what they were wasting their time on, Paul stresses that there is a strongly positive replacement for it: the “godly edification which is in faith” (1:4). The emphasis is on what truly improves--not merely that which gives you the illusion of being “built up” that is produced by the fantasies that they vainly pursue. Faith is fact based, grounded in the solid reality of what Jesus said and did. Hence “in faith” translates into “faithfulness to God’s way of doing things” (Common English Bible).
The parable of the wise and foolish builders found in Luke 7:47-49 illustrates this point. Those building on their fables and fanciful genealogies will inevitably have their structures “washed away” as something new arises to challenge it. Quite possibly something even more fanciful than what they currently embrace. In contrast, those who build on the solid rock of Divine revelation: “when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock” (verse 48). True and abiding faith is always built on the solid rock of revelation; speculation is only sound until the next delusion overwhelms it with a “newer and improved insight.”
“purpose” behind Paul’s commandment for Timothy to follow the priorities he
provides is to accomplish the goal of creating, retaining, and growing “love”
among the church members (1:5). Paul is not interested in idle words. Hence he has an intended “purpose” in what he has to say. In place of “purpose”
(Homan, ISV, NASB, WEB), others substitute “the end” (
That purpose is identified as “love [flowing] from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.” Paul had spoken at length about the importance of love in 1 Corinthians 13 and made passing mention in other places. But that love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a nurturing environment that both makes it possible and encourages further development. That kind of environment is what Paul describes in the rest of the verse. Note that what he describes are not external encouragements but the internal attitudes that encourage and fuel it.
(1) It is a love that comes “from a pure heart” (1:5). All nine alternate translations concur with the words “a pure heart.” As Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 6:6, it is “sincere love,” not a pretend love. Hence the reason he could demand that “love be without hypocrisy” (Romans 12:9).
We aren’t to act as if love were present while simultaneously using our actions as a mask for whatever is truly present or being sought. In other words, our constructive behavior isn’t intended as a disguise that hides our true intents and motives. For example it is not a mere veneer to increase our reputation as virtuous. Or as a kind of “acted out penance” (to use Roman Catholic terms) to paper over and hide our unrepented of sin. Our constructive acts would still be “good” so far as they produced good for others, but they would do no good for ourselves, because they would be mere veneer to make us look pious, to assuage guilt, to shut others up or out of some other self-serving motive. It isn’t out of “a pure heart,” pure motives.
The “pure heart” is found in a person who “isn’t playing games with you.” “What you see is what you get”—or, in this case, “what is really there.” There is no hidden agenda to benefit either the person and his/her ego or to injure others.
Of course “heart” does not refer to the physical body part but to our essence, our soul, our inner being, our inner nature that can shape and change our outward behavior. This usage goes at least as far back as Genesis 6:5: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” What is in our heart determines how we will act, as Moses warned Israel: “And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
To finesse the concept beyond what we have suggested, Allen Stuart may be useful when he suggests that, “The heart stands for the totality of a man’s moral affections and outlook, and without purity there, Christian love is impossible. The Lord Jesus had a special promise for the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8).”
(2) It is a love
that comes “from a good conscience” (1:5). Three of our translations prefer to speak of
“a clear conscience” (GW, ISV,
Our conscience evaluates and judges our behavior, a theme Paul touches on at least twice in the book of Romans:
Romans 9:1: “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit.”
Romans 2:15: “Who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.”
Note that in the first text, Paul is only discussing what his own conscience does. In the next one, he asserts that this pattern is true of all human beings, even contemporary Gentile / pagan ones (2:9-14).
The same is true today. Our conscience evaluates whether our behavior reflects the gospel standard of right and wrong. It is our internal alarm system. Of course we can “short circuit” it by repeated bad behavior until it barely notes anything ill that is happening. The opposite is also true: When we act in accordance with what our knowledge and conscience knows is right, it strengthens the ability of our conscience to hold us to account.
To the degree we defy it, we weaken the ability to do its intended job and this can easily result in repudiating the factual/scriptural knowledge that we have. The truth becomes a delusion. As I wrote this paragraph I happened to be reading the defense of a certain blatant sin. His tweet went, “Today’s essay was inspired by the fight over whether Jesus was or wasn’t in support of XXXXX. He obviously wasn’t. And he was wrong.”
We’ve removed the specific sin because it isn’t really relevant; the underlying attitude is. If we are seduced by any sin sufficiently, we can find a way to rationalize it and, in an extreme case, even openly assert that Jesus was wrong. And if He was wrong, how can we even trust His promise of salvation? Does not all of our Christianity become wasted time and a farce and show that we are following an Ignorant Mortal rather than the Redeemer of mankind?
In 1 Timothy Paul implies that there are a variety of ways our conscience can be described. The kind he obviously prefers is this type, “a good conscience.” But if we allow our thinking to be dominated by personal preferences, degrading desires, and distorted texts carefully “bent” in a direction contradictory to their intent . . . well, then we have the kind of conscience described in 4:2, “having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.” The fact that they have been deceived (verse 1) does not relieve them of the responsibility to protect themselves against such deception.
(3) It is a love that comes “from sincere faith” (1:5). There is unanimity among our nine comparative versions in retaining “sincere” rather than suggesting an alternative. “Sincere” is anupokritos and means “literally, ‘unhypocritical.’ ” This is a third way of reinforcing his motif that love must spring out of purity of motive or it is all pretense.
He has chosen three powerful expressions to describe the proper motivations for constructive behavior toward others: “good heart / good conscience / sincere faith.” These three are so closely interlocked, it is impossible to see how truly loving actions could possibly arise unless all three are present. Again, we don’t deny that even insincerely motivated behavior may benefit others; we do deny that it could possibly impress God in the least for He knows how our minds are really working. If we lack the required sincerity of motive and intent, He is well aware of it even if we blind ourselves to the true reality.
All three descriptions begin with superior motivation and attitude: “A pure heart,” “a good conscience,” and finally, “from sincere faith.” Unalloyed, untempered with self-interest or advancing a covert agenda. The things we do aren’t a means to a hidden purpose, but the end purpose itself.
Being a Theoretical Christian Rather Than a Faithful One:
When we reach verse six we discover, again--compare the “some” in verse 3--that there already was explicit local evidence that Paul’s stance was necessary: “from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk.” Here the deviation is specifically into wasteful speculation (verse 4). At the best, this would include matters you really can’t ever prove one way or another. And if you could do so, it would still be of no real benefit to your spirituality. “Wasted time,” in other words.
But it could spawn something far more ominous. In fact had their love of idle theories already fathered something quite explicitly contrary to the gospel teaching they had embraced? Had their speculative mindframe, which previously had “merely” wasted their time in foolishness, now spawned speculations fundamentally and directly contrary to the teachings of the gospel? ad their receptivity to “anything and everything,” allowed them to take the final step: to embrace something poisonous to true faith?
Certainly in 2 Timothy 2 we read of something similar. There Paul rebukes straying into “profane and idle babblings” for they breed increased sin (). Two individuals are named () as having embraced a particular exotic delusion: “who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some” ().
Although he does not mention their names or the doctrine in this first epistle, it is quite possible that Paul was aware of such bent teachings already springing up in a few places. If so this would surely encourage Paul to take steps against it. Either way, Paul is already engaged in “preventive medicine” in the first epistle by coming down hard against idle exotic speculation. Whatever happens next they will already have been warned against such excesses and the foundation laid for resistance. What Paul is doing here is trying to discredit the kind of wasteful speculation that proves nothing and which can undermine their enthusiasm for the truths—not speculation—that they had previously been thrilled by.
He is “at war” with a mind frame that has already started to drift from the world of concrete facts into the world of legend where anything that “might be” is embraced just as enthusiastically as truth. Hymenaeus and Philetus and their resurrection is past delusion might not be there yet, but some are already harboring the kind of mind frame likely to be very tempted by it.
The end result of their wasting their time in such vain—rather than constructive—spiritual pursuits was that they “strayed” away from the truth. No matter how much zeal had motivated them, no matter how well-intentioned their goals, the result had been that they were no longer fully embracing the truth they had once known—and that alone.
In other words, existing behavior
This was not where they began; it
was what they had drifted from—for they had “strayed”
from the sound rootings of the reliable gospel they
had been converted by. “Strayed/ing from” is retained in two translations (NASB/NET). The image of this being a gradual
process is suggested by “drifted away” (
The other renditions could be read as them doing this intentionally: “departed from” (Holman, NIV); “swerving from” (ESV); “left these qualities behind” (GW, ISV); “having missed the mark, have turned aside” (WEB). It is hardly likely that the translator intended us to read this element into their wording, however.
On the other hand, perhaps we are being too generous. Some may have been motivated in their translation work by the assumption that “it may be questioned whether they really had aimed at a pure heart, etc.” and it is certainly true that some converts instinctively expect “light weight salvation” (i.e., don’t expect much out of me and I’ll go through the expected outward forms—usually). Yet it always seems the fair thing to assume the best—that these folks had made a genuine commitment but that their honorable intentions had been diverted into unprofitable and undesirable side paths.
Furthermore, if Paul had wanted us to read intentionality into their actions, there were ways he could have made that crystal clear and he doesn’t. On the other hand, there were surely some--how many we don’t know--who surely could be described as “unintentionally intentionally” departing from the purity of their faith. They were intentionally seeking to gain wisdom, insights, and deeper penetration into spiritual matters that the gospel had not provided them. On the other hand the result--of spiritual drift and declining faith into the reliable truths they had once been ground in--was unintentional and unexpected. They thought their endeavors would only make them better and more perceptive Christians, when it had really caused them to drift away.
It should be noted however that WEB is quite right in bringing out the “missing the target” element of what had happened. After all, the literal meaning of the Greek here is “to miss the mark.” Some gloss the meaning of “miss the mark” by arguing that it conveys not only the result (missing), but also the reason they landed up missing: the Greek term “means failing to take pains to aim at the right path.” In other words there was an element of not recognizing the seriousness of what was going on, of not doing what was essential on one’s own part to stay on the proverbial “straight and narrow.”
All this implies that at one point, they had things right in their minds. Now they had drifted or been drawn away to something fanciful rather than that grounded in reality.
individuals only shattered remains were left of what they had once been for
they had “strayed” from the purity of true faith, “having
turned to idle talk.”
Although not as accurate for modern ears, I rather like the traditional KJV’s rendering of “vain jangling” or its
more modern synonym of
The language Paul uses shows that his assault is not just on heretical conclusions. In fact he doesn’t even argue that all of what they are saying is necessarily or always wrong, but that even if it were right, it would still be wasted effort. Today we would, perhaps, say: “Even if that somehow turns out to be right—so what?” What has it really gained you? How has it really improved you?
All the hours, all the struggles, all the controversies were wasted time for they were engaged in mere “idle talk” rather than anything of true importance or significance. To a supposedly intelligent and smart person, this was extremely derogatory. Two centuries before Christ was born, the Greek term behind “idle talk” was already used by philosophers to describe those who had left behind the truly important matters and issues and were diverted into secondary and, in comparison, unimportant questions. Can anyone read these verses without concluding that Paul had exactly that kind of rebuke in mind?
If you wish to use the word “talk/talking” to describe what they are doing, then we can choose between “meaningless” (NIV) and “vain” (WEB).
The use of
“discussion” goes further and stresses that the matters they so preferred to
the undiluted gospel envolved ongoing interaction
with those who agreed and disagreed. In
light of how this was all to no useful purpose, we can see how translations
then add to the term, “vain” (ESV), “empty” (NET), and “fruitless” (Holman,
ISV, NASB). My personal favorite is the
addition of “useless” (GW)—because none of this is going to do anybody any real
good at all. Saying much the same, but
at greater length, is
Let us think a little more on why Paul is so stern with these foolish souls. They were toying around with speculative ideas that could both delude and contradict the gospel. That was bad in itself. But even when they began with genuine spiritual truth, they were unable to handle even that rightly!
Naturally they escalated the problem even further since they all (apparently) “desire to be teachers of the law.” The rest of the verse shows that they were already teaching however. Hence the insertion of “desire to be” is a way of mocking their failure to be adequate at what they claimed to be doing. As Luke T. Johnson explains, “The use of thelein (wish to be) is important: They want to be something they are not. They are therefore identified as intellectual imposters.”
People talk a lot about whether Paul (in Romans) and James (in chapter 2 of his epistle) disagree about faith and works, but here is a perfect example of their vigorous agreement . . . both viewed cynically those desirous to be teachers who weren’t really qualified to be such.
In James 3 James appeals to the good sense of his readers on the matter:
1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. 3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. 4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things
See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
In James the unreliable teacher is the individual who does not have the tongue under control and is willing to say whatever he wishes—either to make his point, gain victory in a disagreement, to embarrass the other person . . . or for perhaps some other reason. This is the kind of person we have under consideration in 1 Timothy as well!
· They already were teachers (“charge some that they teach no other doctrine,” verse 3).
· They gave attention to “fables and genealogies which [inherently] cause disputes” (verse 4): debates, confrontations, arguments . . . the unleashing of the tongue . . . and surely in a destructive rather than upbuilding way!
· Although they desire “to be teachers of the law, [they] understand neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (verse 7). Could one possibly have a social context better situated for passions to be excited, self-control sacrificed, and reckless and insulting language unleashed while simultaneously piously claiming to be serving God?
In James we seem to simply have
people overly passionate to have spiritual leadership at a level they simply
aren’t adequate to handle. They don’t
even have a proper and adequate factual basis on which to act. Quite possibly, as it has been suggested,
they have an “intellectual ambition [i.e., to be teachers] unmatched by skill
or training.” Whether those in
3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, 4 he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, 5 useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself.
* * * * *
Their second problem—at least as bad as the first—was that they were merely throwing around empty words rather than soundly reasoned arguments: “understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (verse 7). The Greek word behind “affirm” indicates an intense sureness in their claims. Other translations often bring out the intensity of this affirmation of the validity of the speculations they insisted on teaching:
“confidently affirm” (NIV)
“confident assertions” (ESV, NASB)
“speak so confidently” (GW)
“about which they speak so confidently” (ISV)
“things they insist on so confidently” (NET)
“about which they make such confident assertions” (
“about what they strongly affirm” (WEB)
“what they are insisting on” (Holman)
Today we might colloquially say: “Much hot air, no insight.” “They are trying to play PhD when they haven’t yet graduated from elementary school.”
These are individuals who wish to be viewed as “teachers of the law,” not merely students of it. Authority figures. Ones whose judgment can be trusted and relied upon. And they don’t even have a good “handle” on their subject matter! The “law” here could be God’s law of the gospel. For this is just as much Divine law for our age as the Law of Moses was for the preceding one.
However the Greek expression is only used two other times and in both cases (Luke ; Acts ) the terminology is associated with teaching the Old Testament. Which is likely why the GW renders our text as “Moses’ teaching.” Furthermore, though “the” is absent in our current verse, “the law” is found in the very next one, pushing us toward the conclusion that that is specifically what he has in mind.
that they are trying to bind the Old Testament standards on Christians (which
Paul rebukes in Galatians), but that they are trying to learn “hidden
realities” from it where there’s nothing intended to be learned other than
what it directly tells us and the necessary inferences that can reasonably be
made. As can be seen in the Talmud, it
was really common even for official traditional Jewish “experts” (rabbis) to
find in passages clear evidence of what, at best, would be conjectural and, at
worst, leave one scratching the head in puzzlement.
Or, with minds this fertile in over-worked imagination, the reference to “fables and endless genealogies” (verse 4) may indicate that they weren’t content to rely even on that source—that they are delving superficially or deeply into non-Biblical Jewish thought and tradition that never even found a way to edge into the Talmud. Or even combining a sanitized form of polytheistic reasoning with such.
What made the entire situation even worse is, as we saw at the beginning of the verse--and it bears emphasis through repetition--that these same people were ones “desiring to be teachers of the law” (verse 7). If they could not discern the difference between speculation and fact, how in the world could they ever become good teachers of genuine spiritual law?
How could they if they allowed themselves to become so self-absorbed in guesswork and unprovable assumptions . . . especially from non-Biblical but fascinating “tall tales” that they were elevating to center stage . . . not to mention concerning matters that were irrelevant to discipleship with Jesus? By the time they were finished, would they even have much of an interest left in the historical Jesus recorded in the scriptures? (The Gnostics seem to have found the latter quite dispensable if either descriptive Biblical texts or the Lord’s own words conflicted with their speculations.)
What Does Divine Law Prohibit?
Paul provides a solemn warning against the abuse of Divine law that results from removing its moral judgments from authority over the believer. By doing this Paul is careful to stress that he is far from an opponent of Divine law. Indeed, “we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.” Hence abuse of divine law is just as wrong as promoting the outright fantasies and conjectures He has just rebuked. Paul is appealing to a truth that they themselves already recognize--at least in theory: “we know.” It isn’t revelation of a new truth, but an appeal to one they already know and need to bring back to the forefront of their thinking.
The law has
to be inherently good because the God who provided it to mankind has holiness
as part of His core character. Or, if
one wishes to spell it out in more detail, one might well use the language of
Romans 7:12: “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and
good”—since all three are part of Jehovah’s core nature and essence. Augustine summed it
up well by commenting on this Romans passage, “It commands what ought to be
commanded, and prohibits what ought to be prohibited.” Hence by
definition what could the Divine law be but “good” and fair (“just”)
and reflect the highest standards of moral excellence (“holy”)?
Although “the law” is typically the Mosaical system, since the acts he lists are explicitly or implicitly condemned by both testaments, what he surely has in mind are acts condemned by Divine ordinance under both systems of revelation, especially the gospel since that was what they were now under. It would be rather absurd to just condemn acts prohibited by the Old Testament, unless Jesus’ law also prohibited them as well. Why condemn acts prohibited by the law that was nailed to the cross (Colossians -14) unless the gospel system still condemned them? Hence both Divine systems embrace these same prohibitions.
Paul confirms our reasoning by concluding his list of transgressions that begins with a reference to “the law”—“the” is in the Greek in verse 8 but not verse 9)--with a reference to how these acts are also condemned “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust” (verse 11). In other words the gospel has not just faith and grace, but also a moral code as well. To repudiate the moral code as unessential—in whole or part—is as foolhardy as to count as unessential faith and grace. We either go to heaven God’s way and meeting God’s standards revealed through the gospel or we go to a far more unpleasant and inhospitable destiny.
The stress that both Law and gospel share fundamental moral instructions deals with multiple potential problems that could—and knowing fundamental self-justifying human nature—probably did pop up. One could argue that since we are no longer under the Law but under grace, violating those older moral standards no longer mattered.
Indeed, the perverse minded could argue that it was even a virtue since we are demonstrating how much we are relying on “grace.” But there is a profound difference between believing that grace is abundant and believing we can “get away with” whatever we wish because of grace. It turns the true role of grace as our relying on God’s generosity into grace requiring that God ignore the very rules He has provided.
Those of a traditionalist Jewish (rather than Gentile) background--especially if they had any inclinations in a “judaizing” direction of requiring that Gentiles be circumcised and adopt a Jewish lifestyle--might well argue that Paul’s gospel permitted people moral liberties that the Mosaical Law forbade. They could then use that as “cannon fodder” to attack his authority and reliability as a teacher. By linking Mosaical Law together with gospel requirements, the apostle stresses that the same basic moral fundamentals that were once taught continue to be taught and to be equally authoritative.
points are not usually brought up in connection with this epistle though they
deserve mention since the epistle was circulated and read in other churches as
well (cf. Colossians 4:16). They
represent attitudes that inevitably would have arisen in a variety of locations
regardless of the degree to which they were present in
In the “pastorals” Paul is especially concerned with Jewish orientated myths and fables (1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4). In Titus he specifically refers to “Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth” (Titus ). The fact that a significant number of believers were tempted by this course of gutting basic moral principles through their illusions and delusions is surely implied by the fact that Paul both mentions it and does so quite emphatically. And by doing so, their behavior gave the lie to the claim that they were either faithful to the gospel or to the Mosaical Law’s fundamental principles.
However it didn’t require very many folk acting this way to make outsiders suspicious of the movement. One can waste much time arguing how many were practicing these sins and how many of these specific sins. What Paul is doing is rolling out a survey of the kind of behaviors that bring public dishonor and discredit—brazen, obvious, and often unhidden. And for the list to have been credible to Timothy and his other readers a cross section of these had to have been noticeable where he labored for the gospel. (And just in case some foolish church member wanted to argue their blatant excess “had to be acceptable” because Paul doesn’t mention it here, he adds at the end of his list: “any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine” [1 Timothy ]).
And Paul selects not the more “controversial” elements of required Christian behavior but the kind that “hit you over the head with a baseball bat.” “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew ) is the warning to Christians, but non-believers will grasp the idea as well.
If you are so messed up that you act this extremely, you are fundamentally flawed—both in character and the reasoning that justifies it. It has been rightly argued that Paul is “hoisting them on their own petard”—they wanted to hold themselves up as exemplars; well, they were . . . but exemplars of moral and spiritual failure and shame. Theological fine points are beyond the world’s interests and, often, ability to understand. But brazen extreme, that they recognize all too well.
However much one might misuse it, the law itself is inherently “good.” After all, it came from God. What else could it possibly be? Paul had repeated described the law in this type of language five times in Romans 7. In verse 12: “Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” Verse 13 (twice): The law “is good” even though my violation of it produces condemnation. Verse 14: “We know that the law is spiritual.” Verse 16: If we recognize that our sin is wrong then “I agree with the law that it is good.”
Whatever my personal failings may be, they are the result of my doing something different from Divine law rather than conforming myself to it. It is the written embodiment of what is “good”—not only in religion, but in our moral life as well.
The description of Divine law as being “good” has a logical and practical limitation: it is such “if one uses it lawfully.” How in the world does one not use law “lawfully”? If it’s “law,” doesn’t it have to be “lawful” when one uses it?
Actually that’s not so but the wording of many translations opens the reader to that kind of puzzlement. The idea, of course, is whether one is using it “legitimately” (Holman, ISV, NET) or “properly” (NIV). Luke T. Johnson suggests the rendering of “appropriately.” In other words the law can be abused. Any sin can be legitimized if one has a vivid enough imagination.
To provide a personal example: When I was in the senior year of college I finally got around to repeating a semester of freshman English that I had failed and never got around to repeating. The teacher gave us a book of extracts on about five different themes, including the existence of Atlantis. My assignment was to “prove that Atlantis existed using only the sources in that book.”
I did. The instructor even increased my grade from B-plus to A-minus as she considered what the final grade would be. I had done exactly what she had told me to do: I had proved Atlantis really existed. She wrote on the paper words to this effect: “You have twisted, bent, misrepresented, or distorted every piece of evidence you introduce.”
She was absolutely right. But I had proved Atlantis was a historical reality by doing it!
I learned a vital lesson from that assignment that was useful over my decades of future Bible study: be a little cautious. Just because you seem to have proved a point doesn’t necessarily mean that you really did. Make sure its really the power of the evidence and not your imagination or preferences getting the best of you.
For I had, after all, “unquestionably” and “conclusively” proved Atlantis existed.
But to use Pauline language I had not done so “lawfully” or “legitimately.” And each of the items on Paul’s list could be abused in a similar manner. There is always some “reason” to set aside the Divine moral code. Just some excuses require a little more creativity than others!
Paul tells us that the “righteous person” will not live in the way his list will describe (1:9). Hence to claim to be righteous while adopting a lifestyle that embraces any of these is to be self-condemned as unrighteous. Or, if you wish, so conceited that we believe that because the behaviors are to our advantage--or advances our interest or simply makes us feel better sexually or emotionally--there must be a “behavior optional” button for each of them. God must cut us slack, surely! Says who? How in the world can we expect to successfully fall back on God’s love, if we think we can somehow exempt ourselves from His rules?
In Paul’s list he identifies no less than fourteen different behaviors and actions as sinful. It should be noted that Paul never attempts to provide a complete list—not even here. In other words they are illustrative rather than comprehensive.
 Daniel C. Arichea and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to Timothy and to Titus, in the UBS Handbook series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1995), 7.
 A. Rowland on 1:1, quoted by Alfred Plummer, in Exell, Illustrator.
 On the connotations of the word “apostle” see Arichea and Hatton, 8.
 Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament
 Allen, 259.
 Newport J. D. White, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, edited by William R. Nicoll (1897), on 3:1. At: http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/egt/. (Accessed: October 2015.)
 Implied on 3:1 by Ibid.
 Arichea and Hatton, 9.
 Bernard, on 1:1.
 Don DeWelt, Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus, in College Press’ Bible Study Textbook series (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1961), 33. In downloadable pdf format at: http://www.collegepress.com/cp/pdf/18%20Timothy%20and%20Titus.pdf. (Accessed: November 2015.)
 Arichea and Hatton, 12.
 Ibid., 9.
 As cited by Barrow.
 Arichea and Hatton, 10.
 Mark Harding, Tradition and Rhetoric in the Pastoral Epistles, Studies in Biblical Literature, volume 3 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 126.
 Gundry, Testament, 832.
 A. E.
Humphreys. The Epistles to Timothy and Titus
 A. Rowland on 1:3-4 in Joseph S. Exell, Illustrator.
 Barrow on 1:3-4.
 Arichea and Hatton, 14.
 Allen, 261.
 Mounce, Pastoral
Epistles (19), as quoted by Claire S. Smith, Pauline Communities as
“Scholastic Communities” (
 James T. South, II, Corrective Discipline in the Pauline Communities (Phd Dissertation; University of Virginia, 1989), 274.
 Perry L. Strepp, Leadership
Succession in the World of the
 Ibid., n. 51, 138.
 Robert G. Bratcher, A Translator’s Guide to Paul’s Letters to Timothy and to Titus, in the Helps for Translators series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1983), 9.
 Arichea and Hatton, 15.
 Leon Morris, “1 Timothy-James,” in Daily Bible Commentary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: A. J. Holman Company, 1974; 1977 reprint), volume 4, 326.
 As quoted by Barrow on 1:3-4.
 For a good article on how common they were in the Old Testament see Wayne Jackson, “The Importance of Messianic Genealogy,” Christian Courier. At https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1556-importance-of-messianic-genealogy-the. (Accessed: October 2019.)
 Vincent (internet).
 Bratcher, 10.
 Bruce J. Malina and John J.
Pilch, A Social-Science Commentary on the Deutero-Pauline Letters (
 Ibid., 98.
 Bratcher, 10.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 163.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.1, in The Apostolic Fathers, with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, Volume One, as reprinted at the Gnostic Society Library website. At: http://gnosis.org/library/advh1.htm. (Accessed: September 2016.)
 Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, translated by Mark T. Riley (1971), part of the Gnostic Society Library. At: http://gnosis.org/library/ter_val_riley.htm. (Accessed: September 2016.)
 Stott, Guard, 45.
 Arichea and Hatton, 16.
 Witherington, 193-194.
 Allen, 262.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 166.
 White on 1:6.
 Arichea and Hatton, 19; Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 166.
 Malina and Pilch, 99.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 2001, 166.
 Arichea and Hatton, 20.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 166.
 Thielman, 116.
 Arichea and Hatton, Page 21.
 W. Howells on 1:8-9 in Exell, Illustrator.
 Augustine, To Simplician: On Various Questions, 1.1.6, as quoted by Peter Gordy, editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; volume 9: Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (Chicago, Illinois: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000), 138.
 Witherington, 197-198, who seems to want to make the listing far more theoretical in nature than representing problems currently present in the congregation.
 Witherington, 196.
 Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 167.