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Before moving on to instructions to the whole church, Paul returns to underline Timothy's standing orders concerning the heretics. It is this purpose of instructing Timothy that controls the entire first chapter. The instruction of verse 18 is the command of verse 3 and all that has followed. Now, however, in repeating the charge to Timothy, Paul speaks to him as to the minister whose special calling by God carries with it special obligations.
Persons who accept positions of power and importance in this world must also accept the obligations and responsibilities that go with them. The same is true in the church. Here Paul calls to mind Timothy's God-given responsibility to serve. The instructions, Paul reminds, were part of the "package" that Timothy agreed to when he responded to God's call. The event of appointment to ministry (the modern parallel would be ordination), referred to here obliquely as the prophecies once made about you, involved the recognition of gifts appropriate to ministry, God's selection and the prophetic announcement of God's choice to the congregation, as depicted by the (public) laying on of hands (4:14; compare Acts 13:1-3). Ultimately, the minister's enlistment is in God's service, not simply in a church which, should it happen to falter or split, the minister could choose to leave behind. Appointment to ministry involves commitment to service even when it is under less than ideal circumstances. Thus Timothy's "package" includes the instruction to oppose false teachers.
But Paul calls Timothy's appointment to mind for another reason as well. The event involves more than vows to serve God. As Paul reminds Timothy, the prophecies or proclamations surrounding his assistant's commissioning also announced God's promise of support to him (see below on 6:13-14).
Paul's instructions to Timothy are in keeping with Timothy's call to ministry in that the task of opposing heresy belongs to the ministry. By keeping in mind his earlier commitment to God and God's commitment to him, Timothy will be able to fight well.
The gravity of the situation is apparent from the military imagery Paul employs to describe Timothy's task: fight the good fight. Here the believer is cast in the role of a soldier who is ordered out into battle. The weapons of this soldier, however, are not clever argumentation or inescapable logic, things that we might think best suited to debates with false teachers. On the contrary, Timothy is to avoid debates (2 Tim 2:23-25). Nor is the soldier's objective the destruction of his opponent. Appropriate strategy includes instructing, correcting erroneous views and urging repentance (see 2 Thess 3:14-15). The minister's weapons for this fight are the gospel and godly concern for the spiritual condition of the opponent. The goal is to protect the faith of those whom the false teachers seek to influence and, if possible, to win back those who have strayed (1:5). Only the gospel is sufficient for such work, as Paul has just taken great care to illustrate (1:11-16).
Luke tells the story of the seven sons of Sceva, Jewish priests who had gone into the business of casting out demons (Acts 19:13-16). Having no power of their own, they would invoke the names of Jesus and Paul to command the demons to come out of the possessed victims. One day their scheme backfired on them. In response to their formula, a demon, having admitted to knowledge of Jesus and Paul, denied the priests' right to draw on their names and used the possessed man to give them all a sound beating. One thing is clear: these Jewish priests did not realize the danger of the one with whom they thought to do battle.
Paul clearly does recognize the dangers involved. For this reason he qualifies the command of verse 18 by referring, without a break in the sentence, to the believer's personal spiritual condition in verse 19.
The qualifying phrase, holding on to faith and a good conscience, considers the spiritual life from two perspectives. Faith here means a correct knowledge of God and Christ (or the gospel). Good conscience is that inner faculty that causes faith to issue in godly conduct (1:5). According to Paul, the purity of one's faith is directly related to the effectiveness of one's conscience (4:1-2). The concern here is that while opposing the false teachers and their subtle doctrines Timothy could, if inattentive or unprepared, suffer a severe blow to his faith. It is like the doctor who risks infection while attempting to treat a sick person. But in the Christian's case, one has to remember that the enemy is Satan (compare 4:1; 2 Cor 11:1-15), and his powers of deception and persuasion are not to be taken lightly or ignored.
Some Christians in Ephesus--Paul singles out two leaders, Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20)--made this mistake (and Paul's language, rejected and blaspheme, suggests that it was a conscious one), with devastating results to their relationship with God. Shipwrecked raises images in the mind of "destruction," not "setback." Furthermore, the disciplinary measures taken are severe. Handed over to Satan refers to excommunication from the church back into Satan's realm.
We should not misunderstand the nature of this process. It was not simply intended to "cut out a cancer" in order to preserve the rest of the body, as some churches view it today. Neither is it a practice that the church today can afford to ignore, as if it were an aberration belonging to the Inquisition. Taken together, Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 reflect the development of a carefully measured process. Each step was designed to bring the erring individual to the point of admission and true change of mind and behavior. Even if the individual persisted in a stubborn refusal to change (like the two mentioned here), the final step of expulsion from the fellowship back into the hostile world was ultimately intended as a means (desperate and last-ditch though it be) of reclamation. To be handed over to Satan (compare 1 Cor 5:5) is to be exposed, without the protection God promises to his people, to the dangers of sin. For some it takes being cast off into the sea to realize the advantages on board ship.
No faithful Christian can avoid engaging the enemy (2 Tim 3:12), and the danger involved is real. This goes doubly for ministers and Christian leaders. They must stand in the gap and fend off attacks on the gospel message, because of the threat to the church and to its mission in the world. God's people must take their place in the battle lines.