Background of 1 Timothy
Author, Date, and Recipient
The apostle Paul probably wrote this letter to Timothy in the mid-60s AD, during a mission trip not recorded in Scripture. This trip took place after the events described in Acts, between Paul’s first and final Roman imprisonments.
The letter’s theme is that the gospel leads to practical, visible change in believers’ lives. The true gospel, in contrast to false teaching, must and will always lead to godliness.
Paul wrote 1 Timothy to advise his coworker Timothy about issues in the church in Ephesus. False teachers are the main cause for the letter. Their teaching apparently involved incorrect assumptions about the law (1 Timothy 1:7–11) and not allowing marriage and certain foods (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Paul’s real concern is with the results of the false teaching. For example, it promotes mere theories over solid truth (1 Timothy 1:4; 6:4). It also leads to arrogance (1 Timothy 6:4) and greed (1 Timothy 6:5–10). Paul focuses on the fact that true Christianity is shown in lifestyles shaped by the gospel. Those whose lives are not shaped by the gospel have turned away from the faith (1 Timothy 1:6, 19–20; 4:1; 5:6, 8, 11–12, 15; 6:9–10).
1. The gospel produces holiness in the lives of believers. There is no legitimate separation between belief and behavior. Thus, those who profess faith but show no progress in godliness should question their spiritual health (1 Timothy 1:5; 2:8–15; 3:1–16; 4:6–16; 5:4–6, 8; 6:3–5, 11–14, 18–19).
2. Worldwide evangelism is essential. It is rooted in God’s own evangelistic desire (1 Timothy 1:15; 2:1–7; 3:16; 4:10).
3. One key evidence of receiving the gospel is proper behavior in corporate worship, in matters like evangelistic prayer, unity, modesty, and submission (1 Timothy 2:1–15).
4. Church leaders should be people whose lives are shaped by the gospel (1 Timothy 3:1–13; 4:6–16).
5. Appropriate honor is a key element in how Christians should relate to one another in the church (1 Timothy 5:1–6:2).
6. Everything God created is good. It is to be appreciated, but not worshiped (1 Timothy 4:4–5; 6:17–19).
7. It is important to protect the purity of the gospel (1 Timothy 1:3–7, 18–20; 4:6–16; 6:2b–3, 12, 20–21).
I. Greeting (1:1–2)
II. Confronting the False Teaching (1:3–20)
III. Descriptions of Gospel-shaped Living (2:1–3:13)
IV. Purpose of Writing: Behavior in the Church (3:14–16)
V. Identifying the False Teaching (4:1–5)
VI. How Timothy Should Be Shaped by the Gospel (4:6–16)
VII. How Specific Groups in the Church Should Be Shaped by the Gospel (5:1–6:2a)
VIII. Confronting the False Teaching Again (6:2b–21)
The Setting of 1 Timothy
The Global Message of 1 Timothy
Paul’s first letter to Timothy is filled with practical instructions about the life of the local church. Yet all this practical instruction is rooted in the gospel (1 Timothy 1:5, 15), and is intended to promote godliness and to spread the message of salvation to all people (1 Timothy 2:1–7; 3:1–13; 4:10).
First Timothy and Redemptive History
In the opening chapters of Genesis we see God placing the first humans in the garden of Eden and enjoying perfect fellowship with them. With the fall into sin, that fellowship was broken. Down through history, God has been working to restore humanity to himself. With the call of Abraham, God set apart a man whose descendants were to be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 12:1–3). These descendants were the nation of Israel. They were “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Israel was set apart to be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
The Church’s Calling
Yet Israel largely failed in this calling. When Jesus came, however, he reorganized the people of God around himself. He called twelve disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 10:1–4). His life and teaching indicated that he viewed himself as doing what Israel had failed to do, starting by remaining faithful while in a time of testing in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–13). The New Testament letters, likewise, speak of the church as inheriting the calling of Israel to bring God’s blessing to the nations (1 Peter 2:9–10; Acts 13:47). When 1 Timothy tells us of the church, then, we are learning of the institution that God planned from before time as the means of reaching the world with his blessings. Paul tells us elsewhere that the church is the result of “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” (Ephesians 3:9), and that the inclusion of the Gentiles and thus all people everywhere was God’s gracious saving intention from before time.
For All People
This heart of God for all people groups to come to know his saving grace resounds through 1 Timothy. God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). After Jesus’ death and resurrection he was “proclaimed among the nations” (1 Timothy 3:16). God is “the Savior of all people” 1 Timothy 4:10). Time and again Paul reminds Timothy, and us, of the Lord’s great heart of compassion for all people throughout the world.
Universal Themes in 1 Timothy
Prayer for Those in Authority
“I urge,” says Paul, “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). While Paul directs believers to have special regard for fellow Christians, in 1 Timothy he expands our horizons to intercede for “all people,” all the way up to world leaders. This has significant implications for global believers today, as we pray for those in positions of authority or political influence.
More clearly than any other New Testament book, 1 Timothy describes the divinely ordained structure of church leadership. Paul tells us of the need for elders who are qualified in certain ways, and of deacons (1 Timothy 3:1–13). He describes the way older men and women should be honored, and how younger men and women should be treated (1 Timothy 5:1–2). He gives instructions on caring for widows (1 Timothy 5:3–16). The honor due to the church’s preachers and teachers is discussed (1 Timothy 5:17–18), as is church discipline (1 Timothy 5:19–21). In all this the global church is given a blueprint for how to structure local churches in a way that is faithful, effective, and fruitful.
The Danger of False Teaching
Throughout 1 Timothy Paul returns to the threat of false teaching. This is the very first thing he says to Timothy, encouraging the young pastor to exhort believers to hold to the teaching they have received and to avoid quarrels about myths and genealogies, as well as mistaken notions about the law (1 Timothy 1:3–8). In chapter 4 Paul refers to another strand of false teaching, in which the good things of life such as food and marriage are not received as gifts from God (1 Timothy 4:1–5). Paul closes the letter by once more urging Timothy to avoid false teachers, whose messages stir up dissension and promote the love of money (1 Timothy 6:3–10). All of these teachings are relevant for the church today: sound teaching on God’s law, sound teaching on receiving physical blessings such as food and sexuality, and sound teaching on money and contentment.
The Global Message of 1 Timothy for Today
Paul’s first letter to Timothy gives believers a clear picture of what the church is to look like. Two points, however, are particularly striking about the way Paul describes healthy church life. First, the qualifications Paul gives for both elders and deacons have to do with godliness more than with competency as defined by the world. Elders, for example, are to be self-controlled, respectable, and hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2). Deacons must be guarded in their use of the tongue, sober, and not greedy (1 Timothy 3:8). These qualities describe a person of mature character, more than simply a person with impressive natural abilities. This is a strong reminder to the global church of the crucial importance of choosing leaders who walk with God faithfully, whatever their level of gifting or eloquence or natural charisma.
Second, the local church and its various ministries and responsibilities are all rooted in the gospel. It is striking that, in an epistle written to a young pastor, with lots of practical instruction for the local church, Paul begins with a moving statement of his own salvation through Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:12–17). The gospel is then connected to Paul’s guidance throughout the rest of the letter—whether he is discussing prayer for political leaders (1 Timothy 2:2), selection of elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1–13), the avoidance of irreverent controversy (1 Timothy 4:7), or dealing with money and the wealthy (1 Timothy 6:3–10).
The global church is to gladly receive the practical guidance Paul gives in 1 Timothy, and resolutely put it into effect. Through it all, the gospel is to reign supreme, to the great glory of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16).