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Bible Commentaries
1 Timothy

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

- 1 Timothy

by Peter Pett


In this letter Paul is writing to his younger co-missionary and lieutenant Timothy in order to encourage him and guide him in the responsibility that he had given him to keep the Ephesian church going forward on the right lines. Paul had learned, whether by a visit, or by information otherwise received, that all was not well there, for some of the teachers and elders had become caught up in some funny ideas (inevitable where there was no New Testament, and even common now that there is). Timothy was there to put things right, and Paul calls on him to see his responsibility through to the end. It was a huge task for an inexperienced and shy young man, but one of which Paul clearly thought that he was capable.

We must remember that the ‘church in Ephesus’ was not just one huge gathering, but was composed of smaller groups spread around the city, all however overseen by group of ‘elders’ (presbuteroi) or ‘overseers (episkopoi - bishops) who were the unifying factor that kept the church there ‘as one’ (see Acts 20:17). These groups met together for worship throughout the city, and many Christians (who would often be slaves) had limited time available to move far from their own locality, so as to join a wider or larger group. Thus there would be many elders, and even more teachers needed in order to cover their needs. And if some of those teachers in a local group strayed from true doctrine they could well take their group with them. It was therefore important to keep them all on the right lines.

There had been organisation in the Christian church from the beginning, arranged as the need arose. First there was the unique Apostolate. Then there was the appointment of men to ‘serve’ (diakoneo), and these not only performed good works and watched over the young church’s charitable work, but also went around preaching and performing miracles (Acts 6:0), with no one demurring. This was then followed by the appointment of ‘elders’ over the different churches (Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:0; Acts 20:17; Acts 21:18; 1Ti 5:17 ; 1 Timothy 5:19; Titus 1:5).

Those who were familiar with synagogue worship would inevitably, in a general sort of way, pattern their organisation on them, but, as they had no buildings, it would be without the specific functionaries that were required there. Thus a group of elders (presbuteroi) or overseers/bishops (episkopoi) would be responsible for the ‘congregation’ in each town or city.

This accepted organisation would be one reason why earlier letters did not say so much about organisation, although such organisation is clearly implied in, for example, the constant mention of elders. The organisation was simple but effective. But expansion and growth would require modification, and in accordance with the example first given by the Apostles, it would appear that two tiers of officials came into being, (although not necessarily in exactly the same way everywhere), the overseers (episkopoi - ‘bishops’), of whom there were a number in each church, and who as a group had overall charge, and the deacons (diakonoi - servants). This is first apparent in Philippians 1:1, where the offices there were clearly fixed, but compare Syrian Antioch where things were in the hands of ‘prophets and teachers’. How different the one were from the other we cannot be sure, but certainly one of the things which Paul was concerned about when writing to his lieutenants was to give advice on the selection of overseers and deacons.

The need for this kind of approach would have occurred fairly early on as the churches rapidly expanded. Such modifications must to some extent have occurred almost from the commencement of the wider church outside Palestine, especially as groups were formed which had had no connection with synagogues, but the larger ‘the church’ grew the more such ‘organisation’ would inevitably need to grow, for the numerous house churches would require oversight and assistance, possibly the smaller ones by diakonoi, as they would not want to multiply elders beyond a reasonable number. The ‘elders’ would therefore have oversight in each city, often in the form of episkopoi assisted by the diakonoi, certainly in some cities as early as Philippians 1:1. There is no reason therefore on these grounds for seeing these letters as ‘late’. And, apart from Philippians 1:1, where the two levels seem to be seen as a settled thing, we only know of the situation because Timothy and Titus, as Paul’s lieutenants, had a responsibility for ensuring the continuation of a good ‘church order’. It would, however, in one way or another, be occurring in churches ‘worldwide’.

But there is no hint anywhere of one person being in overall charge of a ‘church’. The nearest we come to it is James, but even he was one of a number of elders (Acts 15:4; Acts 15:6; Acts 15:22-23; Acts 21:18), although having a special kind of personal authority because of who and what he was. Men like Timothy and Titus, as emissaries of Paul, and of course the Apostles themselves, had a special function in maintaining Apostolic oversight until the churches were established. But we have no reason to think that they had direct, permanent authority over individual churches. Their purpose was to ensure that the local church was properly organised and running, and then move on. And as far as we know, once the Apostles died, their authority died with them. Direct, permanent authority was in the hands of the local elders, and while Paul might exhort strongly, he never indicates that they must obey him because of his position, even though he strongly urges that they should because God had directly appointed him for their good. Nor do we ever have any suggestion that the Apostles were replaced as they died off. (The replacement of Judas was a special case. He was not replaced because he died but because he was a traitor who left an unholy gap, and the replacement had to be one who had followed Jesus from the beginning and was a witness to the resurrection).

It was in order to advise Timothy in respect of these things that Paul wrote to him, but the letters were clearly intended to be made public (1 Timothy 5:21 - ‘grace be to you all’). Indeed it was necessary for them to be so, so that the churches would realise that what these young men were requiring was in fact something that was required by Paul himself. And they may thus gradually have become ‘manuals of church order’. But they were not really so, nor intended to be so. They were simply intended to contain advice with regard to who should serve in different offices, but along with other requirements. It was simply that they became useful for the purpose.

Following the usual pattern for letter writing at that time the letter commences with the name and authority of the sender, followed by a greeting to the recipient, coming prior to the main body of the message.

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