1 Timothy 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Opposing False Teachers
The responsibility of opposing error in the church falls mainly to Christian leaders. So in Ephesus it fell to Timothy. At the time Paul wrote, he planned to visit again (or return) soon (3:14; see introduction). He had already invested a great deal of time and effort in building this church, and he was quite concerned about recent developments there (Acts 18:19-21; 18:24--20:1). Ephesus was a city located on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). It was famed for its cult and temple dedicated to the worship of Artemis, around which a good deal of the city's commercial interests revolved. It also had a large Jewish colony. Ephesus presented the gospel with a formidable challenge in that it was a center of pagan worship. From its inception here (see Acts 19) the church was very much in the public eye.
Paul learned that certain men within the church were teaching false doctrines. Their probable position as leaders or elders in the church (see introduction and note) called for immediate action. Timothy was to command these individuals not only to stop teaching false doctrine but also to put an end to their speculative system of interpretation.
False doctrines literally means "different doctrines" (compare 6:3), those that diverged from the accepted teaching of the Old Testament, Christ and the apostles. The little we know of the specific content of these teachers' doctrine suggests that its central feature was a misunderstanding about the resurrection of believers (2 Tim 2:18). Perhaps due to some confusion over the Pauline teaching that believers even now participate in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:4-5, 8; 2 Tim 2:11), they believed and taught that the resurrection of believers had already occurred in a spiritual sense (see further 2 Tim 1:5 and introduction).
That such a mistake could be made may seem strange to us. But the fervency of the first-generation church's hope of Christ's return and certain carryovers from the pagan religions out of which believers came (see comment on 2 Tim 1:5) could have led some to the conclusion that all of salvation's blessings were to be experienced now. A modern parallel is what we might describe as Christian triumphalism (or the "health and wealth" gospel), which tends to present the Christian message as the quick solution to all of life's problems. The same basic mistake seems to be involved. In any case, the heretics' special insight into spiritual matters, which they termed "knowledge" (6:20), also had ethical implications, as allusions to their asceticism would suggest (4:3).
In verse 4 Paul criticizes the errorists' myths and endless genealogies. As the term is used in the New Testament (always in the plural--1 Tim 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; Tit 1:14; 2 Pet 1:16), myths is consistently a pejorative and polemical classification. It classifies material not simply as untrue or legendary but as pernicious in its (or its author's) purpose to justify immoral or improper behavior on the basis of a divine or traditional pattern. Thus grounds for certain immoral practices could be found in the behavior attributed to the gods. Paul uses the term similarly in the Pastorals to categorize the false teaching in Ephesus as dangerous and immoral. But the actual content of this false teaching is more clearly in view in the term that follows. Genealogies, as a description of a literary type, is broader in meaning than lists of families and descendants (such as 1 Chron 1--9; Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38); it referred to the part of history concerned with persons and so meant "personal histories or biographies" (so Quinn 1990:245). The false teachers probably used such stories to support their doctrine (see comment on 2:11-15), and their "knowledge" and its ethical demands were somehow linked to this source. The rabbis were well known for intricate and fanciful interpretations of such Old Testament texts. Several decades later an interest in the Old Testament "genealogies" is evident among a Gnostic sect called the Ophites.
While Paul does not elaborate, his reason for rejecting the false teachers' system is clear: instead of serving God's salvation plan, as proper interpretation of Scripture should, their esoteric approach causes only "controversy" (compare 6:4). Evidently their conclusions were not all readily accepted, and the debates and arguments that followed did more to divide than to edify the congregation. In fact, Paul goes on to say that God's "plan" of redemption (NIV has work; see Eph 3:9) is apprehended by faith, that of genuine believers, not by novel schemes of interpretation. And with this word (and what follows) Paul sets the beliefs and activities of the false teachers totally outside the bounds of true faith in Christ and service to God. For this reason Timothy must oppose the new interpretation.
But there is more than an impersonal interest in preserving correct doctrine in all of this. For the goal of this admonition is love, flowing out of a cleansed heart, a good conscience and a genuine faith. Faith and love in the Pastorals and throughout Paul's letters signify a correct and personal knowledge of and belief in God, and its proper, active outworking in the life of the believer (see notes on 2:15). Pure heart and good conscience are technical terms in the Pastorals. The heart was regarded as the inward part of the person and the center of one's spiritual and thought life. The total inner life of the believer, cleansed from sin, could be depicted with the term pure heart. For Paul and for us, the conscience is that part or faculty of the mind that gives awareness of the standing of one's conduct as measured against an accepted standard.
But we who are modern Westerners should not read into Paul's term all of our understanding. The concept of individuality bred into us in the West was foreign to Paul's culture. Conscience tends to function individualistically in us to produce feelings of guilt. For Paul and the ancient Mediterranean culture in general, conscience was the internal judgment of one's actions by that one's group--"pain one feels because others consider one's actions inappropriate and dishonorable" (Malina 1981:70). Honor and shame, rather than guilt, were the operative feelings. Therefore, Paul's readers would perceive the conscience as sending internal signals evaluating the rightness or wrongness of behavior (past, present or future) as a member of a group. We, on the other hand, view the conscience as concerned with right and wrong on an individual basis, not necessarily taking into account what others think and expect about us.
Now just as the qualifier pure defines the condition of the true believer's heart, so good (1:19) and "clear" (3:9; 2 Tim 1:3) refer specifically to the conscience of the one rightly aligned with God. As the opposing references to the "seared" (4:2) and "corrupted" consciences (Tit 1:15) of the false teachers reveal, it is the acceptance or rejection of correct doctrine (the Word of God) that determines the condition and effectiveness of the conscience. That is, the standard of behavior accepted by the group (the community of faith or church) is the Word of God properly interpreted. It is necessary to operate with this standard for the conscience to perform its function of encouraging correct behavior (the behavior deemed appropriate by the Christian community).
Thus the goal Paul sets for Timothy in opposing the errorists through teaching is to encourage the development of "whole" Christians: cleansed by God, directed by his effective Word, producing visible fruit. While the main concern is to reach believers who have been threatened by false doctrine, the goal embraces the heretics themselves, if they repent and return to orthodox beliefs (see 2 Tim 2:25-26).