"Cynthia's a lemming" is a phrase I heard for the first time at a faculty prayer meeting in a Taiwan seminary. Throughout the year that followed, I detected the same phrase over and over again in the prayers of the seminary's president. That I could possibly hear such a thing can only be explained as the combination of his accent and my unaccustomed ear as I was struggling to learn Chinese. I was told that good language learners were to take note of peculiar phrases, and this one seemed to qualify. It was voiced so frequently and with so much feeling that I was convinced of its deep significance. In this at least I was correct. I eventually learned that what sounded like "Cynthia's a lemming" had nothing to do with anyone named Cynthia or that puzzling suicidal rodent. The phrase was an appeal to God, meaning "Give us grace and mercy." Its frequency in the president's prayers revealed his conviction that the foundation of Christian life and service is God's grace and mercy.
Paul's opening lines to Timothy reflect that same deep conviction. As in his other epistles, the greeting takes the form typical of that day: he identifies himself as the sender (v. 1) and Timothy as the recipient (v. 2), and then includes a word of greeting and blessing (v. 2). But this is no form letter.
What I didn't mention above is that when I asked my Chinese colleagues what the phrase meant, they hadn't even noticed it! It was too familiar to attract their attention. This often happens with Paul's greetings in our study of his letters. The language seems familiar or perfunctory, so we tend to pass quickly over it. But actually the greeting is an integral part of the whole message. In his opening words Paul (1) establishes his (and his letter's) authority, (2) introduces the letter's dominant theme and (3) identifies himself closely with Timothy.
Paul calls himself an apostle of Christ Jesus, one sent by God. The term designates an office that he held by the command of God and the choice of the risen Christ (1:11; 2:7; Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1). This was not simply biographical data that might interest the readers. Rather, Paul's reference to his office signifies the authority from God by which he preaches, teaches and writes. Although he did not need to convince Timothy of this, the letter was meant to be aired before the whole church (see on 6:21). Paul wanted his hearers/readers to know that his teaching is authoritative, and the delegate who administered it to the community, Timothy, was to be regarded as an extension of the apostle himself. In view of the difficult task that faced him, this may have been an encouraging reminder for Timothy as well.
But this reminder is also a timely one for us today. Questions have arisen within the church concerning the authority of Scripture. Cults and sects continue to multiply, and their ability to confuse the unwary with their doctrinal subtleties is as threatening to the church today as it was when Paul wrote. It falls to ministers of the gospel and church leaders to guide the church through this murky water, while at the same time attempting to address issues like those Paul addressed through Timothy centuries ago. Where does our authority for this task come from? Like Timothy, we depend on the apostle whose writings are invested with the authority of God.
Paul's reference is to God our Savior. It is a designation that Paul confined to the Pastoral Epistles, and with this phrase the apostle introduces his main theme, salvation. He chose with equal care the additional reference to Christ Jesus our hope. At the core of the false teaching Timothy faced was an out-of-balance view of salvation: the heretics proclaimed that the End had come and the resurrection had occurred (2 Tim 2:18; see introduction), and the return of Christ was all but forgotten. Here at the outset Paul begins to assert his balanced theology: this is the age of salvation, but salvation's completion awaits the Second Coming of Christ, our hope.
Timothy was the immediate recipient of the letter. He is linked to Paul in Acts 16:3, and though it is not clear that he was the apostle's convert, it is apparent that he became Paul's trusted assistant (1 Thess 3:2), so that Paul could say that Timothy served with him "as a son with his father" (Phil 2:22). Paul here injects a note of intimacy and fatherly love in calling him my true son in the faith. But this is also a pronouncement of Timothy's genuine faith in Christ. For Timothy this undoubtedly came as a vote of confidence for the difficult task ahead. The church was to recognize this as the apostle's stamp of approval on Timothy's doctrine, particularly in the light of the current doctrinal controversy.
The blessing that follows occurs regularly (minus mercy) in Paul's introductions. He calls down the benefits of God's covenant, which no one merits but God freely gives. Grace refers generally to all God's gifts and his loving disposition toward his people. Peace describes the one who is at rest in God. Mercy in this instance denotes God's special care of an individual in need. At the outset, Paul thus reminds Timothy that God's unearnable love and peace will overshadow his servant even in the most difficult of circumstances. Today, this is our promise--as sure as the authority of Scripture.