Vintage Christianity: 1 Timothy 1:1,2
[Note: the following is an expanded version of my sermon notes on 1 Timothy 1:1,2.]
Sometimes addition is good. An empty house is a sad thing. When it is filled with furniture and a family and children and legos and toys and memories, then it is a happy thing. A home is truly fulfilled only when it is filled. On the other hand, a virus added to a computer is not a happy thing. It slows the computer down, impedes its performance, among a host of other deleterious effects. It is only when the virus is removed that the computer can again function properly. In fact, sometimes the virus has become so pervasive that the only thing to do is to wipe the computer clean and start from scratch. As bad as that might sound, it is better than a computer with a virus.
When it comes to the church, some additions are good. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). That's a good thing. On the other hand, some additions are not good. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophesy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book” (Rev. 22:18). Not so good.
There is no question that over the years the church has accumulated stuff. There is also no question that if a first-century believer walked into our church, they probably would not recognize it as the kind of worship service they were accustomed to. The question is, then, what stuff is good and what stuff is not good? What should we throw away and what should we keep? What stuff is just cultural baggage and what is genuinely there to help keep the church faithful and relevant?
To answer that question, we need to ask the following question: what is the church supposed to be about? Since the church of today did not just come out of nothing but is defined by its connection to the historical, first-century church that Christ founded, we need to ask, what was the earliest Christianity like in worship, doctrine, and practice? To borrow a phrase from the emergent church people, what is “vintage Christianity?”
We can get some answers to these questions from Paul’s first letter to Timothy because it addresses doctrinal, doxological, and practical issues that the church had to face at the outset of its existence. In these letters, we get a view into the life of the church in the first century. And when we look at Paul's introduction, we see four main concerns.
1. Paul’s authority comes directly from God and Christ; he therefore speaks with authority. It follows that the Ephesian believers should listen to him, and to the instruction that will come from him through this letter via Timothy. Paul needed to remind them of this because evidently they had strayed from the apostolic teaching. The best way for them to see that Paul’s teaching is true is to see that it comes from God.
However, many New Testament scholars have doubted the Pauline authorship, and have attributed it to a later disciple of Paul. If this is the case, then this letter is no more authoritative than any other letter. The reasons for rejecting Pauline authorship generally fall under the following two categories: (1) the vocabulary of the Pastorals does not match the vocab of his other letters, and (2) the history implied in the Pastorals (such as Timothy staying in Ephesus while Paul went to Macedonia) doesn’t match up with the history of the Acts of the apostle. What can we say to this?
First, vocabulary can change if the circumstances change. The circumstances surrounding Paul's letter to Timothy were sufficiently different to warrant a different literary approach. Also, it just isn't true that the same author must use the same words when he/she addresses a similar topic. R. C. Sproul tells of his experience reading the theologian Berkouwer when learning Dutch; he read The Person of Christ and learned 6000 new words. Then he read The Work of Christ and learned 3000 more new words. The topic was similar – both works were on Christ, and yet there were at least 3000 words that were not common to both works.
Second, regarding history, if one assumes that the tradition that Paul was released after his first imprisonment and then carried on ministry afterward, then the history implicit in the Pastorals easily fits in that scenario. There is no reason therefore to try to fit the history behind the Pastoral epistles into the history of Acts. Thus, there is no good reason to doubt the Pauline authorship of this letter. It comes from the hand of the representative of Christ, and comes to us with Divine authority.
2. Paul’s authority and commission comes jointly from God the Father and from Christ Jesus. Similarly, the blessing “grace, mercy, and peace” come jointly from the Father and Son. The blessing is a three-word summary of salvation from sin; the fact that this is ascribed equally to God the Father and Jesus demonstrates Paul’s exalted Christology. This is an unconscious ascription of Divinity to Christ, which Paul makes even clearer in Titus 2:13; cf. Luke 8:39.
3. Timothy is Paul’s faithful son. Paul’s message cannot be delivered directly; it will be mediated via Timothy, who Paul authorizes as his true messenger. As Paul is to be obeyed, even so Timothy should be heard.
4. The main aspects of the Christian message are spelled out in the greeting. God is the Savior of men, Christ is our hope, and because of this, those who believe in him have grace, mercy, and peace. This is in stark contrast to the message offered by the false teachers who had abandoned the faith.
The greeting thus addresses the following issues about Paul’s message which were under attack at Ephesus: (1) the authority of the message, (2) the Christology of the message, (3) the future of the message, and (4) the heart of the message.
These first few verses also remind us what vintage Christianity necessarily is and what it is not. It is not a particular worship style. It is not defined by a particular liturgy. We sometimes emphasize things the Biblical authors do not, like the number of songs we sing; when we sing them; what kind of songs we sing; whether we sing acapella or not; how many prayers are offered; whether they are read or extemporaneous; the style of sermon preached; how long the sermon is, and so on. You will find nothing of that sort here in this letter, or in the NT as a whole. What this means, I think, is that these are things each local church is free to experiment with, and to find a doxological expression that best fits the people and the times. Worshiping God is not an option. How we do it may be accomplished with some latitude. I’m not saying there aren’t any boundaries on how we worship, but that we need to be careful not to put boundaries up where there are none in the Bible. Let’s not be defined by extra-biblical practices.
These four points presuppose something: that there is a message; that there is a comprehensible, intelligible, coherent set of ideas and propositions. The Church has something to say, but before it can say it, these four things must be sorted out. The message of the Church is the most important aspect of its purpose in the world. We see this in the following ways:
1. Timothy’s charge, and the reason Paul asked him to stay at the Ephesian church, is to teach, to communicate doctrine, the message of the gospel, 1 Tim. 1:3,ff. This is repeated several times, as well in Paul’s second letter. 4:6,11,13,16; 6:2,17; 2 Tim. 1:13;2:2,15;4:1-5.
2. Paul’s commission is one of teaching and communicating truth, 1 Tim. 1:11.
3. The only non-character qualification of the elder is the ability to teach, 1 Tim. 3:2, which indicates the fundamental importance of the place of teaching in the church. Cf. Tit. 1:9.
4. The purpose of the church is defined in terms of holding forth the truth, 1 Tim. 3:15.
5. Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “this is a faithful saying” (1 Tim 1:15;3:1;4:9; Tit. 3:8) indicates that not only are some things worth repeating, but that the teaching of such truths is a necessary component of the life of the Church.
The question then is, why it is so important? There are at least two reasons: 1. It is important, because the gospel is a message which, when believed, leads to “life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:16; 4:16; cf. 2 Tim. 2:8-10; 3:15). 2. It is important, because this message alone sanctifies the believer. The gospel is a message which accords with godliness (1 Tim 1:10,11; 6:3). Since these are the two things people need the most, the gospel is therefore of all things the most relevant!
How do we then stand with Timothy in faithfully transmitting the gospel message given to us by the apostles? To be, in some sense, Paul’s “own [true] son in the faith”? There are two controlling convictions a church must have if it would identify with the early church and its message.
First, it must have complete confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. That is, it must believe that God has spoken through the authors in the Bible so that when they speak, God speaks. Paul begins by underlining the authority of his message and he ends on exactly the same note, 1 Tim. 6:20,21. The church must do this; otherwise, the Bible becomes just a bunch of “good ideas” that may be discarded or declared as is deemed convenient. The reasons for this are as follows.
1. There has never been a period of history where the message of the Bible has been popular. To hold to its truths requires courage, the will to be in the minority, the ability to face down rejection because of its message. The only way to do this without losing heart is to have the confidence in the face of the world’s sneer that the Bible speaks the truth.
2. What the Bible commands us to do is not easy. It tells us to die, to mortify the flesh. To inherit the kingdom of God through much tribulation. It tells us to love the lost while being hated by them. You won’t do what the Bible commands, and you won’t walk down the road that is narrow and strait unless you are absolutely convinced that God’s word is true.
3. What the Bible tells us to believe is not easy. It tells us that we are wicked and deserving of God’s eternal judgment. It tells us that we cannot save ourselves, that we must rely entirely upon the mercy of God in Jesus Christ who is the only person who fully obeyed God and offered up a sacrifice to atone for the sins of men. It promises us “blood, sweat, and tears” for the present, that our inheritance must wait for the other side of death.
In any case, this is what the Bible is; it is the Word of God. To take any other stand is simply to fail to honor God’s Word for what it is. It is hard to see how God would honor that. Why would God honor a project that is based on the assumption that his Word is mixed with error?
However, I think it is necessary to point out that it is not enough to simply hold to the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. We can be like the son who said, “I go” and went not. We can congratulate ourselves on our orthodoxy when we do not love the God of the Bible. We must not only believe the Bible is the word of God; we must listen to it, and obey it.
Second, the church must have complete confidence in Jesus Christ as the Way to God. It must believe that God speaks through Christ and blesses through Christ, so that there is “no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” God speaks through Christ: Paul is an apostle – and thus commissioned to speak for God – “by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.” He does so in two ways: he has spoken in the life and work of Christ. Christ is the Word of God (Jn 1:1-18), he has revealed the Father to men. He was full of grace and truth. But not only that, God speaks through Christ in his apostles; actually, in all the authors of the Bible: Peter speaks of “the Spirit of Christ” in the prophets of the OT (1 Pet. 1:10-11).
Thus, you are not listening to God if you are not listening to him through his Son. That is not to say that God doesn’t speak in other ways – in nature, for example. But the only way God speaks savingly to men is through his Son. “This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son that not life.” (1 Jn 5:11-12). You cannot know whether or how God will save unless he tells you; and he has done that in his Son.
What he has spoken is that salvation comes through Christ. God speaks through Christ and he blesses through Christ. In fact, there is no other avenue through which the blessing of God comes. Paul says that “grace, mercy, and peace” comes “from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Everything good that comes from God is in these three words. Paul had written similarly in Ephesians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” These three words describe in different ways the totality of our salvation from sin and instatement into the favor and love of God.
“Grace” is Paul’s “one-word summary of God’s saving act in Christ, stressing that salvation comes as a free gift to undeserving sinners” (Mounce, p. 10). “Mercy” is the word that translated in the LXX the word for the steadfast love of God to Israel, bound by his covenant to them. It carries the idea of covenant faithfulness, and could also be translated by the word for “righteousness.” This is because it is right for God to keep his covenantal commitments to his people. Therefore, “mercy” is not just an emotional response on the part of God to unfortunate people; it is God’s saving response of steadfast love to those who belong to him. Behind the word for “peace” is the Hebrew word “shalom.” John Murray describes the Biblical idea behind the word: It “is not the composure and tranquility of our mind and hearts; it is the status of peace flowing from the reconciliation . . . and reflects primarily upon God’s alienation from us and our instatement in his favor” (Comm. on Rom 5:1, qtd in Mounce). “Believers do not just feel peace; they actually are at peace with God” (Mounce,p.12).
The blessing is not a mere wish for these things to happen. They are a celebration of their reality, a reminder to Timothy and to every future believer who reads this letter that these things belong to them, and can belong to anyone who gives their life to Christ. Unlike the favors given us by men, God’s grace is always followed by glory. Unlike the fleeting peace the world knows, God’s peace reaches into eternity, and no one can take it away. Therefore, it is fitting that Paul describes Christ as “our hope.”
These two realities need to be what defines us as a Church if we are to be like the NT church. The glory of the Christ who saves and blesses and gives us hope must be the blazing center of our message and the authority of God’s word the gravity that brings our wandering lives into their proper orbit. And let these realities be reflected by us in this world in such a way that others too will be attracted to Christ in his Word.