Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Timothy 3
by Erin M. Stout
Timothy is a young pastor in Ephesus. Paul and Timothy had served the church together until Paul went on to Macedonia. Timothy was left behind in order to provide leadership in a rather challenging situation regarding self-appointed teachers who had slipped into the church. Their teachings were reminiscent of true Christian doctrine, but at their heart, they got Jesus wrong. Paul opens his letter by reminding Timothy of his challenging task:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work – which is by faith. . . . They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. (1:3-7)
Understandably, this shook the Ephesian congregation. They – and their pastor – needed instructions to remind and orient them.
For the bulk of our passage, Paul details the calls and qualifications of overseers and deacons. As leaders, they play a significant role in guarding the purity of and promoting the mission of the church. In marked contrast to other religious institutions of the day, the leaders of the church are not chosen based on their social status, financial standing, or connection with the ‘right’ people. The leaders of the church are chosen on the basis of God’s call, as evidenced primarily by strong character and a pure conscience (both in the church and in their daily lives), healthy relationships, maturity, and the ability to keep hold of and teach “the truths of the faith” (v. 9). As one commentator aptly observes: “On the one hand, the requirements for office are high enough so that persons with outstanding moral defects are excluded from office . . . On the other hand, these requirements are low enough so that almost any member in good standing and of deserved reputation can qualify.”
Paul makes these instructions and qualifications clear so that everyone “will know how God’s people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household” (v. 15). The church is not just another institution of the world; it is the very household of the living God. This must have given Timothy pause. The people who gather together to worship – imperfections and all – these people are the family of God.
And that’s not all. This church (both the Church universal and its expression in this local community) is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (v. 15). This word picture, too, would have given Timothy pause. At the time of Paul’s writing, the residents of Ephesus were witnessing the construction of a number of impressive buildings, “some of them of massive proportions.” 1) The city was located in a region that was susceptible to frequent, major earthquakes, and only the structures that had solid foundations and strong supports could survive. In the same way, the Church of Jesus Christ is “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” False teachers distort the truth and actively spread their misinformation. But through the ordinary, Spirit-empowered people who love and share the Gospel, God’s truth will stand.
Now, in the final words of this passage, Paul shows how all these instructions point to Christ. Though the larger part of the passage deals with practical issues in the church – how she ought to behave, who to appoint as leaders, and what her task is – they cannot be understood apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the source of godly living and the only one worthy of worship. It is he who:
. . . appeared in a body
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory. (v. 16)
With these words (which were probably part of a hymn or a baptismal liturgy), Paul gives a profound picture of the truth the church is charged with protecting. The only reason the church exists is because of this person – the crucified and living Jesus Christ. In humility and love, the Word-Made-Flesh took on the limitations of a human body – becoming well-acquainted with weakness and suffering, even to the point of death. Many failed to recognize and receive him. But through his teachings, miraculous acts of healing, displays of authority over nature, and especially by his victory over death, the Holy Spirit proved him to be exactly who he said he was: the Son of God and Savior of the world. Angels heralded his birth, served him in the wilderness, testified to his resurrection, and promised his return. By his own commission, disciples were – and still are – being made of all nations – beginning in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and extending to the ends of the earth. He has called to himself “a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” who prostrate before him and cry, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” (Rev. 7:9, 12). He is the one who – while he was blessing his disciples – was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God, where he lives to intercede for his people.
This is why Paul is writing to Timothy. This is why the church must contend for the truth. This is why the offices of elder and deacon matter. In the words of a New Testament scholar who beautifully explains why Paul closes this section as he does, he says: “How great is the church which has such an exalted Head! Let Timothy bear this in mind as he goes about his task of supervision.” 2)
1) Arnold, Clinton E., ed. Romans to Philemon. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. 444-74.
4 vols. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Print.
2)Hendriksen, William, and Simon J. Kistemaker. Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews.
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996. 117-142. New Testament Commentary. Print.
Let’s stay with our focus on this hymnic praise of Christ, because it reveals a profound mystery about our Lord and his church.
The six lines of poetry are arranged into three pairs. The first pairing shows the juxtaposition between Jesus’ humiliation (“he appeared in the flesh”) and his exaltation (“[he] was vindicated by the Spirit”). The second pairing sets Jesus’ heavenly audience (“was seen by angels”) side by side with his earthly reception (“was preached among the nations”). The final pairing places the earthly realm (“was believed on in the world”) in proximity with heaven (“was taken up in glory”).
Additionally, the pairings themselves are arranged intentionally. New Testament scholar William Hendriksen points out that the progression of thought goes from the lower realm to the higher realm (flesh-Spirit), then from the higher realm to the lower realm (angels-nations), and then from the lower realm to the higher realm (the world-glory). Hendriksen says of this stair-step structure, “What we have in these six lines is not antithetical parallelism (in the sense in which the term is usually employed), but chiastic, cumulative, parallelism.”
This has profound implications for us. The Kingdom of God is a co-mingling of heaven and earth. Almighty God has entered into our everyday existence through Jesus Christ, who is both Son of God and Son of Man. And Jesus’ Church is likewise a mysterious blending of the ordinary and the holy. The Holy Spirit takes run-of-the-mill women, men, and children who are called by Jesus’ name and – through our lives of grateful obedience – invites us to participate in the very work of Christ.
When a child is adopted into a safe, loving family after a history of trauma, she needs to learn the rules of her new household – and they probably won’t come automatically. Likely, she has developed specialized survival skills to ‘make it’ along the way. Maybe she acts out in order to push back from a relationship she so badly wants, but can’t yet believe is unconditional and ‘forever’. Maybe she’s learned to rock herself to sleep because she’s never had a mom or dad hold her in their arms and sing. Maybe she stashes extra food in her bedroom, just in case there isn’t enough to eat later. For a child whose home has been unstable and unsafe, these habits become necessary survival skills.
But when that same child is adopted into a family, the expectations are different. She not only has to learn the rules of that particular household, but also what it means to be part of a family that is not going anywhere. This is new to her. Trusting that she will have enough to eat, accepting her parents’ comforting touch, and learning to put words to her big feelings will likely not come automatically. She has to be taught.
In the same way, the Ephesian church was in need of instruction. They were a church of converts who were still getting the hang of what it meant to live in God’s family. That is why Paul is writing this letter to Timothy. He says, “I am writing you these instructions so that . . . you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household” (v. 15). And, grace upon grace, God supplies their needs and provides shepherds and servants to teach them.
Arnold, Clinton E., ed. Romans to Philemon. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. 444-74.
4 vols. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Print.
Gaebelein, Frank E., ed. Ephesians-Philemon. Vol. 11. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, 1978. 363-70. 12 vols. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Print.
Hendriksen, William, and Simon J. Kistemaker. Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews.
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996. 117-`142. New Testament Commentary. Print.
NET Notes: NET Bible, New English Translation. https://net.bible.org/#!bible/1+Timothy+3