Positioned between 1st and 2nd Thessalonians and the grand letter to Hebrews in the Christian Canon are a set of 4 contested letters from Paul- 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus and Philemon. All 4 letters bear similarities in focus, exhortation and teaching, with this connective tissue binding them together as a call to witness (of our salvation) and right living (godliness).
There are strong arguments that can be made both for Pauline authorship and against it. For the purpose of keeping the narrative flow of these four letters intact there is worth in assuming Pauline authorship, as it helps to shape the context with a bit more clarity while also underscoring the flow of the placement structure- 1 Timothy is Paul writing between the two imprisonments in Rome, 2 Timothy during the second imprisonment in Rome (right before his death), which is then flipped with Titus between the two imprisonments in Rome, and Philemon during his imprisonment in Rome.
Structurally speaking, this back and forth placement is able to offer us as readers an intimate and very practical picture of Paul’s understanding of ministry set alongside the effects of his witness to the Gospel in the life of Churches/Believers all around the area in which he ministered and his inevitable time in prison that led to his death.
False Teaching and the Call to Persevere
Beginning in 1 Timothy, what becomes clear is Paul’s concern for the Gospel in the midst of false teaching, which comes both through Gnosticism and the Jewish teachings of the Law, both of which have the power to divide us against Christ and Christ against Himself. This is the challenge Paul sees the Church facing as he creeps closer to his own death, and thus he is looking to equip the Churches to persevere in his growing absence.
False Teaching, Church Leaders and The Pattern of Witness
We also find in 1 Timothy a focus on developing a Church structure that is able to respond to and uphold the Gospel in the face of false teaching. There is a practical edge to these letters that is undeniable, but one that is anchored in “a pattern of witness” that informs the Gospel in the light of Christ. In this sense, all 4 letters are considered Pastoral Epistles (with the exception of the more specifically addressed Philemon, which is to a “master”) and are speaking to Church Leaders.
In 1 Timothy, the exhortation to these leaders is to “stay in “Ephesus”, which is the community Paul is speaking directly to. He calls them to stay so as to guide people towards teaching “good” doctrine (repeats this in 1 Timothy 4:7-10). There is a relationship between good doctrine (teaching), the Gospel and “godliness” that emerges here and that becomes important for understanding the exhortations in all four books, with the teaching of the “good” Gospel becoming the measure for godliness and the measure of our witness.
The Gospel and Godliness
This Gospel, the work of Christ on the Cross, is recognized as the driving force for our discussions of godliness, with the ensuing discussions of teaching this Gospel (by way of living it) depending on what the Gospel does as an “undivided” and a unified vision (one God, one mediator, undivided I Timothy 2:5) of God’s work in our lives. As Titus posits, “knowledge of truth” bears witness to godliness in the “hope” of eternal life 1:2, of which we have hope because it (the Gospel) was set in place before time and made ours in Christ. Paul, then, is less concerned with saying exactly what the false teachings are in these letters, and more concerned with how false teaching is expressed in ways that are antithetical to the Gospel, thus leading to “ungodliness”. This is why he is exhorting and upholding the Leaders in these letters amidst the presence of these antithetical teachings, most of which revolve around dissension, division and arguing, thus revealing the ways in which people are standing in the hope of the Gospel or outside of it.
False Teachings, The Law and The Gospel
What we do know about the false teachings in these letters is that they seem to connect to teachings of the (Jewish) Law that are creeping back into the Gospel (which freed us from the Law). In Titus, this is referred to as the circumcision party, Jewish myths, ritual purity, and Cretans (Titus 1:10-15). This is why the exhortation in 1 Timothy 1:3 is set over and against the “endless myths and genealogies” which leads to vain discussion (disputes) in 1:4-6. These genealogies are the very thing we find in the Gospel writings that people use to define themselves as within (or outside of) the Kingdom of God (according to their heritage), constantly creating distinctions between who the Gospel is for and who it is not for. What this does is divide the Gospel (which is informing these communities in Ephesus), promoting “speculation” about who is in and who is out (according to Law) rather than dependence on the “stewardship from God”, which comes through faith (1:3-4), faith that bears the hope of our shared heritage (in adoption) that Titus expresses.
Love as the Aim of the Gospel
The aim of this exhortation is ultimately “love” (1:5) as that which unifies us within the work of the Gospel, which leads Paul to remind them of what the Law was meant for and what the Law does (in its divisiveness). The Law, which Paul has claimed elsewhere as well, is meant to expose Sin, and Sin is exposed so that Jesus might be displayed 1:5-11. It is in this truth that “… the grace of our Lord overflowed with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:4), and for this reason that Paul can say that his witness begins and depends on the Gospel which declares that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am foremost.” He received mercy “because” he first acted “ignorantly”, a claim he repeats in Titus Chapter 3. This is what the Law upholds. The reason the Gospel must be upheld is so that we can bear witness to the way Jesus is then revealed through the law. This is why Paul received mercy, so that “Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life (our hope).” 1:12-17 This becomes the pattern of witness, a pattern that gains weight when set alongside Paul’s imprisonment, his coming death, his suffering and his trials.
The Good Warfare, Prayer and The Unifying Work of the Gospel
The charge then, as these leaders persist in the face of Paul’s absence and wait for this hope to be fully revealed? Wage the good warfare (1 Timothy 1:18). Waging good warfare begins with prayer “for all” so that “we may lead a peaceful, godly life” (2:1), because God desires “all to be saved” 2:3, and this salvation comes by way of unity (in Christ) as the one who abolishes those dividing lines held in place by the Law. This unity is ultimately expressed in the image of the one God, one mediator standing undivided 2:5. This is why in Titus 3:9 Paul writes to “avoid foolish controversies.” For those who stir up division, warn them once, twice and then have nothing more to do with them for they are self condemned by nature of dividing themselves against the hope we have in the Gospel (that Christ has conquered the Power of Darkness that divides us). For Titus, the problem is that false teaching (which stands opposed to the Gospel) leads not to living godly lives (Titus 1:16), but rather to lives that live as if they do not know God. The grand truth is that God knows them, with the “knowledge of (this) truth” according with godliness in the “hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2), which is where we place our hope because it was set in place before time.
Connecting Our Witness to Our Work Through Allegory
To establish this pattern further, Paul begins to locate it within a couple analogies, working towards then establishing this “working” connection between teaching (living), godliness and the Gospel. We see this first in the use of the “ransom” analogy to describe what this one God and one mediator is doing to establish godliness. This “ransom” language, as most analogies do, arrives as an incomplete picture, and we have to be careful as modern readers with trying to stuff it into these analogies too directly or literally. But Paul evokes it for a reason, with the language reaching across this mental picture of something (us) held in bondage and something needing to be payed (Christ’s death) to free this thing from bondage. The important point of this image is the one “who gave” out of a desire for “all to be saved”. Where we need to be cautious is pushing this analogy further to account for “who” is holding us bondage and “who” the payment is being made to (which some systematic theologies go to great lengths to talk about God Himself holding us ransom, because God is not subservient to the Devil of course, and of God’s payment being made to Himself because He is the one who requires it). This is stretching the allegory much further than intended, and actually causes it to break down, leading us straight back into the kind of divisions Christ came to deliver us from (and to unify). The point of the ransom language is to evoke this simple contrast of “bondage” and “freedom”.
With a continued emphasis on prayer (2:8), Paul then moves to apply this analogy to a second analogy expressed in a two-step framework, connecting the pattern that we find in Genesis to the pattern of “godliness” that we find in the conduct of men and women in prayer. (2:9-11, 12-15) What’s important to note here is that these passages are descriptive not generalized, and they are directly related to the ongoing emphasis on “division” and “unity”. The particular example (of men praying with hands raised, and on women praying in specific ways while cautions on teaching and exercising authority) is used to emphasize the greater analogy, which is the Genesis narrative (Adam and Eve). After describing the conduct of man and woman in prayer in light of the interest in “divisiveness”, Paul connects this using the word “For”. Watch out for this, (“for”) Adam was formed first and then Eve, but Adam was not deceived, Eve was. “Yet” (2:15), she will be saved through “childbearing” “if” they continue in (the kind of living that connects to godliness).
This is a difficult verse to unpack in its full and ancient context. But there are a few things that we as modern readers can pull from it to help frame our focus on the narrative and argument Paul is trying to paint for his readers.
1. This is not a creation mandate where 13-15 is meant to support 8-12 as a matter of law and code of conduct meant for all, as some have made it out to be. It is an interconnected analogy that is being used to set up his words in chapter 3 about the point and nature of Church leadership.
2. The point and nature of leadership, which Paul is arguing must be “above reproach”, is to witness to the Gospel and protect against the kind of division that divides the Gospel. This division (and being divided) and the right teaching of it is how we are to recognize godliness and ungodliness.
3. Therefore, the analogies are being used and pulled from in order to offer Leaders a “pattern” of living by which to understand this relationship between conduct (work) and (godliness) in a way that accords with a unified Gospel.
4. The words “for”, “yet” and “if” are important in the above passage, because they help us to connect the analogies together. The point is the witness to the Gospel that the “Ransom” analogy describes (in bondage, freed from bondage through the unifying work of Christ). The example of Adam and Even plays back into the particular kind of division it raises, an example that then connects back to the primary call to “pray” for all in chapter 2:1, becoming a way to frame this bondage/freedom paradigm over Paul’s own pattern of witness referenced in Chapter 1 and now being located in the lives of the Church leaders in Chapter 3.
5. Recognized within the larger narrative that the Adam and Eve allegory belongs to in Genesis (and the Torah), Adam represents the bondage (The Power of Sin and Death), and Eve represents the “all” who are under bondage (being deceived). It is a picture of one “Sin” (the Powers which brought Death through Adam) for all, and one “God” (made alive in Christ) for all. This is how the passage says that Eve “became a transgressor”, not because she herself evoked the need for the Ransom through her sin, but because she was already under bondage to the Sin that needed a Ransom (a freeing from). This is the force of the allegorical picture that Paul is representing in light of the Gospel of “ransom”. This also helps us to then make sense of the “yet” portion of this allegory, with Paul suggesting that her (Eve’s) continuing in faith and love and holiness and self control in the midst of her “suffering” (which in the allegorical picture is the pain of childbearing that the Genesis narrative describes as the sign of bondage) can be a sign of Christ’s saving work (making right what is wrong). This is the same witness that the Leaders good works (which bear witness to this Gospel) then protects.
6. These three allegories then- the ransom, the action of men and women in prayer, the Adam and Eve narrative, become the working image for the “mystery of faith” (3:9) and the “mystery of godliness” (3:14-16) that we can carry forward.
The Pattern of Witness in the Life of the Leaders: Healing the Divide and The Gospel’s Unifying Work
With this pattern of witness in mind (Christ’s witness being made known in Paul, Paul’s witness making Christ known in them), and moving towards the grand proclamation of this mystery unveiled as they bear “witness” to others of our liberation, chapter 3:1-6 shifts us into a practical application of the lives of Leaders “being above approach” when it comes to “false teaching” (that which confuses or ignores the bondage-freedom Gospel), and likewise Deacons being above reproach. All of this fits with Titus and the call to be held to a higher standard as well, with Titus’ clear emphasis on this shared witness (2:11-14) as being a hope that we hold for this life and the next.
What’s worthwhile noting about this list of specifics, and the the specific exhortations (instructions) for Church conduct in chapter 5, is how they all have to do with being awake and aware both of what false teaching leads to but also of how a life lived in accord with the Gospel must stand un-divided against itself in love of the other. To be “above reproach” is not to allow someone to see in your life a reason to doubt the power of the Gospel, which is what happens when someone (which the allegories mentioned before hold in place as the “mystery of godliness”) sees you as perfectly able to save yourself in “right” action or by heritage. This pushes back against the hope we have. Godliness has value, as it says, for this life and the life to come (that which we hope for) because of the ransom payed by Christ, whom through His Death (putting Himself under Bondage to the Power of Sin), defeated it and liberated us. By living undivided (together) according to this single truth, we then bear witness to the One who is making all things right as we wait for the final hope of a redeemed Creation. “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16) in which the mystery of godliness is being made holy by the “word of God” (the Gospel) and Prayer for all (1 Timothy 4:5), not by the Law of works that the false teaching upholds.
Therefore, show faith, hope and love through a patient and persistent approach that bears witness in the face of external challenges and pressures on your behalf and on behalf of all. Because “the Spirit” expressly says that “in later times” some will depart from the faith (“according to deceitful spirits’), bringing us back to the Adam and Eve analogy, and “in the last days there will come times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1). But, in our understanding of this deep connection that exists between the Gospel, godliness and right living, we can understand that “God made everything good” and is making all things right, once again (bringing us back to that Adam and Even analogy) 1 Timothy 4:1-15. Therefore “fulfill your ministry” in this light. (2 Timothy 4:5), and share in the suffering of Paul and Christ for the greater good of all (2 Timothy 2:1-11).
This then flows out into a picture of patience and perseverance (training and the race in 1 Timothy 4:7-8), seeing this godliness as a process of waiting and enduring that looks towards a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8), which is found through our hope in Christ. Therefore continue, devoting yourself to “public readings of Scripture, exhortation and teaching” shaped by the Gospel and set within the sacred story of this narrative (2 Timothy 3:15), for “all scripture (the narrative that bears witness to the Gospel) is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16). This is how we become equipped to persevere, is being shaped together and unified by the unifying work of Christ.
It is for this reason that the Leaders here are called through the prophecy of those who laid hands on them to their calling in Christ (1 Timothy 4:14), a call that positions the witness of this mystery as a “gift”. This reminds them that the mystery is not something they lay claim to by their own knowledge, but it is imparted to them and through them by way of their witness to the Gospel. The call is to let others see their progress in training not for the sake of their works, but to lay claim to the work of Christ in moving us from bondage to freedom (4:15). The call is not to have the “appearance of godliness while denying its Power” to do so (2 Timothy 3:5), but to bear witness to that which the work of Christ lays claim to. “The Lord knows who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19) and His foundation stands. This is the good fight Paul references in (2 Timothy 4:7), the faith that he upholds. Jesus defeated Death (Powers) (2 Timothy 2:1-11), and because of this the Lord knows those who are His, so avoid division that blinds us to this truth and do good work (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Words divide, but work unifies (2 Timothy 2:14-16)
The Freedom of The Gospel and the Freedom From Slavery
In 1 Timothy 6:1-2, as Paul brings his letter to a close, we come to this powerful illustration regarding slaves and masters which Paul pulls into the pattern of witness and allegorical pictures he has been painting. Paul uses slavery, a yoke similar to that which Paul describes for women in the pain of childbirth out of the Genesis story, to empowers those enslaved by affording them the same witness in Christ. In the spirit of unity this becomes a picture of a world being made right set against the reality of a world that is not yet right. The agency afforded slaves here points us straight to the simple, one page letter that we find in Philemon, which is a letter written to a slave master on behalf of a runaway slave for whom Paul has brought the Gospel.
Empowered with the freedom of this Gospel truth, Paul is urging the master to consider the slave a “brother” (an equal) rather than someone who is lesser. This is the spirit of these brief couple verses that grants agency to the slave and sets him within the “mystery” and grace of “godliness”, therefore giving us a clear demonstration that Jesus Christ and the “teaching” this Gospel is the only measure for godliness. (6:3). In Titus, the Gospel (2:11-16; 3:3-7) is the source of “godliness.” Therefore, in a passage that moves to evoke the imagery of money, distinguish between the gain “of” godliness and the gain “from” godliness (6:5-6), counting godliness itself as a true gift of riches (freedom from bondage), a gift that brings us not a “spirit of fear but of power, love, and self control” (2 Timothy 1:4-7).
Titus and the Grand Narrative of Hope
Set in the scope of Titus’ declarative message, this message rings loud in clear in the ultimate call to live into this broader narrative that the Gospel unveils. “The grace of God appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ… (Christ) who gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2: 11-14
Therefore, be “ready” for good works, not divided but unified, showing courtesy to everyone.” Let us be reminded, as Paul was, that we are all the same (once foolish) and that Christ came to save all. In this great mystery, give yourself to the good works that Christ saved us for, not “quarrels and division” (avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions about the law), for these things are profitable for people.