1 Timothy 3:14-15: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
We come now to a series of three books that are often classified together when speaking about Paul’s letters. These were letters that were written late in his ministry, after the events that are recorded in the book of Acts, when Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome, and allowed to continue on with his journeys and missionary work. We don’t know much about these later missions. Only what is contained in these three letters—First and Second Timothy and Titus—give us any information about Paul’s life after his time in Rome. These three letters are often known as “the Pastoral Epistles,” and for good reason. They are written to Timothy and Titus who serve as evangelists and teachers in these congregations, and who also have the task appointing elders or pastors to serve as overseers of the churches. Timothy is in the city of Ephesus when he receives this letter from Paul. Titus is on the island of Crete. You will notice similar content in the three letters but will also see the particularities of each congregation they are working with.
Ephesus has a classic history. Perhaps there is no church in the New Testament that we know more about and over a greater length of time. That church was begun by Paul in Acts 19 when he baptized some people who had only received the baptism of John, and we hear about the church at Ephesus again near the end of the Bible in Revelation 2. Unfortunately, we see in the church of Ephesus what becomes true for all churches. Faithfulness is not a given. To remain faithful to Christ is hard work and a challenge. False teachers will attempt to come in from outside of the congregation; false teachers will attempt to rise up from within the congregation. And there is always the temptation to lose one’s first love through life’s distractions. Paul was the first to minister in Ephesus; Apollos came later; Timothy arrived later still. And maybe the last of the well-known ministers or elders in Ephesus was the Apostle John himself. Some even say that Ephesus was where the mother of Jesus fled to when she left Jerusalem under the care of the Apostle John. Some of that is speculation, but it all points to the significance of this early church.
Given the significance of the teachers they had, you would think that Ephesus would be a model church. But we come to find out when we read letters like First and Second Timothy, the church in Ephesus had real problems. In this first letter, which is the subject of our article today, we learn that there was disorder in their worship, that men were teaching false doctrines, and that some were taking advantage of the charity of the church.
In order to outline the letter, we can see that there are five different sections that are easily identifiable. In section one, which consists of the first chapter, we get our first taste of how false teachers are corrupting the church. Paul reminds Timothy why he left him there in Ephesus: it was in order to command certain people to stop teaching false doctrines. This is a strong statement. Can you imagine a minister who did such things today? He would cause serious disruptions in the congregation. Apparently, there were teachers who came up with theories about how the Old Testament should be translated allegorically. The stories were to be taken as mythological, and maybe there were secret meanings hidden in the genealogies (1:4). Paul says they want to be teachers of the law, but they don’t understand the things they so confidently affirm (1:7). Paul does not like controversy for controversy’s sake. The goal of his command is love and a pure heart (1:5). But it is serious, nonetheless. Paul says that such false teachers, and the godless lifestyle that often accompanies them, will not inherit the kingdom of God and should be opposed. In verses 12-17 Paul uses his own ministry as an example and exhorts Timothy again in verses 18 through 20 to remember those who have shipwrecked their faith.
Section two of the letter covers the topic of public worship and how the leadership of the church is to be arranged. God wants evangelistic prayers to be offered up by the church on behalf of everyone, even those who are rulers of Rome. He has various functions for men and women in the church, and he also gives qualifications for those who can be selected as elders and deacons. The qualifications are very similar between the two offices. Both require men of faith and spiritual maturity. But the role of teaching seems to distinguish those who are called to serve as deacons, verses those who serve as elders and overseers. Also, women are identified in verse 11 as serving as deacons, but the same is not true of the office of elder.
Section three (chapter 4) returns to the subject of false teachers. Paul says that the Spirit has clearly taught them that in the later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. When Paul speaks of the “later times” it is a phrase that can refer both to the final days before the coming of Christ, but also of the whole period of the Christian age. What we can expect is that apostasy will be consistent throughout the age but will gain strength as the end approaches. This is similar to what Paul taught in Second Thessalonians, where he notes that the time of the Man of Lawlessness will lead to a great deception and falling away. Paul wants Timothy to be faithful to point these things out to the church and to train himself in godliness so that he does not fall prey to such doctrines himself. It is interesting that Paul notes that these doctrines are not of human origin alone but come from the influence and teaching of demons.
Section four gives some practical teaching on various relationships within the church, including those who are elderly, those who are younger, and for those who are widows and are being supported financially by the church. Paul has a number of qualifications for those who are supported in such a financial way, making sure that no one is taking advantage of the church’s generosity. He also speaks of how some teaching elders are worthy of “double honor,” which means that they qualify to earn their living from the gospel so that they can give their full time to teaching and ministering.
The final section begins in 6:2b and comes back again to the subject of false teachers. Having highlighted that some teachers in the church are worthy of being paid, he warns against false teachers who might be motivated by financial gain. Godliness with contentment is the aim of all believers because the love of money is root of all kinds of evil. But as a man of God, Timothy is to flee from all of this and to fight the good fight of faith. We learn from this letter that ministry is not all peace and good times. Often it means facing stiff opposition, whether from false teachers, or from ungodly people who arise in the church. But despite the difficulty, it is a worthy work. It is a practical book for all believers, but perhaps most of all for ministers and elders.