Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. After a short break, we’re returning to finish our Letters to the Church series, in which we take a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament.
Paul’s First Letter to Timothy
Start reading it here: 1 Timothy 1
When was it written? Most likely between AD 62 and 66. It’s likely that Paul was in Macedonia when he wrote this letter (see 1 Timothy 1:3).
To whom was it written? 1 Timothy is a “pastoral” letter. These letters were addressed to church leaders and outlined their pastoral duties. This one was written to Timothy, a believer in Ephesus who had worked and traveled extensively with Paul. Throughout the letter, Paul uses the tone of a father instructing a son, even calling Timothy his “true child of the faith.”
Why was it written? The Christian church in Ephesus was falling into serious error: a form of gnosticism was corrupting church teachings. Paul urges Timothy to remain in Ephesus to put a stop to these falsehoods and maintain spiritual discipline within the church. Both to protect the Ephesian church from further error and to encourage the formation of a Christlike community, Paul includes many instructions about the administration of the church.What does it say? Like Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1 Timothy confronts the danger of pagan, syncretistic theology within the church. Influential people within the church were promoting practices and ideologies that didn’t cohere with Christian doctrine. The Greek goddess Artemis was the city’s favored deity—the Temple of Artemis, located in Ephesus, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and pagan beliefs were seeping into the young Christian church. Timothy’s charge was to urge the Church to stay true to the Christian faith (see 1 Timothy 2:5-6 and 4).
This letter also functions as an administrative guide for the church. Paul outlines the procedure of public worship, the qualifications of church leaders, the treatment of elders and widows, gender roles within the community, and even instructions for slaves. These passages are heavily discussed to this day, as modern Christians try to understand Paul’s specific and practical guidelines within the cultural context of the ancient Roman world.
- 1 Timothy 2:5: Paul asserts the oneness of God and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, in contrast to polytheistic pagan beliefs.
- 1 Timothy 3: Paul’s list of qualifications for church leaders is also an excellent guide for godly living in general.
- 1 Timothy 6:7: The origin of the saying “you can’t take it with you!”
- 1 Timothy 6:10: Paul’s famous warning that “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.”
What can we learn from 1 Timothy? As we’ve seen in some of Paul’s other letters, false teaching has been a threat to the church from its earliest days. While it’s unlikely that the specific heresies described in 1 Timothy are taking root in your church, our modern age has its own fair share of appealing but false philosophies; we can certainly benefit from Paul’s emphasis on refuting erroneous beliefs and remaining true to the teachings of Christ. Paul’s message is simple and exquisitely clear: one God; salvation by Jesus Christ.
Paul’s instructions regarding church leadership and responsibilities are very relevant today, and churches around the world use 1 Timothy as a guide for choosing leaders and understanding their duties.
Consider these questions as you read 1 Timothy:
- Why do you think Paul focuses so much on interpersonal guidance in this letter?
- Reading 1 Timothy, what picture do you get of the church in Ephesus?
- Does your church use 1 Timothy’s guidelines for leaders and church administration as the basis for its everyday work? How does your church approach some of the more controversial guidelines in 1 Timothy, such as Paul’s instructions for women and slaves?
- Your church probably isn’t tempted by Artemis worship. But what non-Christian beliefs could you see threatening your church, if you were to let your guard down?