A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 1:3-20. Apostolic Doctrine.
The opening section sets the historical and geographical scene for the letter. It speaks of a visit by Paul to Macedonia and of a stay by Timothy in Ephesus. Since these events cannot be fitted into Luke’s narrative in Acts, commentators have assumed from the earliest days of the church that Paul was released after those two years under house arrest in Rome, in which Luke takes leave of him (Acts 28:30-31), and that he resumed his travels. *I went to Macedonia*, he writes, and at the same time *I urged you to stay there in Ephesus* (3a). We cannot say for certain whether Paul was himself in Ephesus when he exhorted Timothy to stay there. What is clear is that, however and whenever Paul issued his original spoken appeal to Timothy, he is now confirming it in writing. The reason for this arrangement was in general that Timothy might regulate the affairs of the churches of Ephesus, and in particular that he might *command certain men not to teach false doctrine any longer*…(3b).
Paul’s preoccupation in this first chapter is with the importance of maintaining true or ‘sound’ doctrine, and of refuting ‘false’ doctrine. This differentiation strikes a discordant note at the end of the twentieth century. It is not only that most societies are increasingly pluralistic in fact (an ethnic and religious mix), but that ‘pluralism’ as an ideology is increasingly advocated as ‘politically correct’. This affirms the independent validity of every religion as a culturally conditioned phenomenon, and frowns on any attempt to convert people. Indeed, one of the chief tenets of ‘postmodernism’ is that there is no such thing as objective truth, let alone universal and eternal truth. On the contrary, everybody has his or her own truth. You have yours, and I have mine, and they may diverge widely from each other, even contradict each other. In consequence, the most prized virtue is tolerance. It tolerates everything except the intolerance of those who insist that certain ideas are true and others false, while certain practices are good and others evil.
No follower of Jesus Christ can possibly embrace this complete subjectivism. For he said he was the truth, that he had come to bear witness to the truth, that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and that the truth will set us free (Jn.14:6; 18:37; 16:13; 8:32). So truth matters, the truth which God has revealed through Christ and by the Spirit. Jesus also told us to beware of false teachers. So did his apostles.
Indeed, Paul urges Timothy to stay in Ephesus precisely in order to stop the spread of false teaching. He calls these teachers’ activity *heterodidaskaleo* (a verb he may well have coined), teaching doctrine which is *heteros*, which means not primarily that it is ‘false’ (NIV) or ‘strange’ (JB) or ‘erroneous’ (REB) or ‘new’ (JBP), but that it is ‘different’ (NRSV) from the teaching of the apostles. Similarly, Paul complained that the Galatians had deserted the grace of Christ for ‘a different gospel’ (Gal.1:6) and that the Corinthians were being led astray to a ‘different Jesus’, ‘a different Spirit’ and ‘a different gospel’ from those that had first received (2 Cor. 11:1ff.).
The verb *heterodidaskaleo*, which Paul uses both on 1:3 and in 6:3, clearly indicates that there is a norm of doctrine from which the false teachers had deviated. It is variously designated in the Pastorals. It is called ‘the faith’ (1 Tim.1:3, 19; 3:9; 4:1, 6, 21; 2 Tim.3:8; 4:7; 6:10, 12, 21; Tit.3:15), ‘the truth’ (1 Tim.2:4, 7; 3:15; 4:3; 6:3, 5; 2 Tim.2:18, 25; 3:7-8; 4:4; Tit.1:1, 14), ‘the sound doctrine’ (1 Tim.1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim.1:13; 4:3; Tit.1:9; 2:1), ‘the teaching’ (Tit.1:9; 1 Tim.6:1) and ‘the good deposit’ (1 Tim.6:20; 2 Tim.1:4, literally). In nearly every one of these expressions the noun is preceded by the definite article, indicating that already a body of doctrine existed which was an agreed standard by which all teaching could be tested and judged. It was the teaching of Christ (1 Tim.6:3) and of his apostles (1 Tim.1:11; 2:7, 2 Tim.1:13; 2:2; 3:10, 14).
What Paul does in this first chapter is to refer
successively to three teachers or groups of teachers. First, he describes the false teachers and their misguided use of the law(3-11). Secondly, he alludes to himself, previously a persecutor of Christ but now an apostle of Christ, and to the gospel he preached (12-17). Thirdly, he addresses Timothy and urges him to fight the good fight of the truth (18-20). Moreover, the whole passage is extremely personal. Paul begins each paragraph with a verb in the first person singular: ‘I urged you…’ (3), ‘I thank Jesus Christ our Lord’ (12), and ‘I give you this instruction’ (18).
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 1:3-11). The false teachers and the law.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.