Paul's Epistle to a Young Pastor

by Spiros Zodhiates

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Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Savior, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope.”
Only God could turn a letter of encouragement and exhortation into a treatise on local church government and polity. Such is Paul’s first letter to Timothy, his “own son in the faith” (see v. 2). Although 1 Timothy is by no means a long letter, like those to the Romans or Corinthians, Paul’s main purpose in writing is to spell out the ground rules of the local church and how a pastor should lead the congregation which God has entrusted to him.

Before delving into the background of 1 Timothy, I would like to define “epistle.” This word has Greek origins and signifies more than just a “letter,” as it is often defined in modern terminology. Its Greek equivalent is epistoleâ and while calling it a “letter” may suffice as a basic definition, the epistles that comprise much of the New Testament are more than notes exchanged between friends.

Instead, each epistle is a grouping of summary statements that touch on a theme of mutual interest between the writer and the recipients. For Paul and his pupil, Timothy, their shared concern was the local church and the principles of its proper governance.

A little background on the Apostle Paul will, I believe, aid in understanding his purpose for writing to Timothy, as well as his ability to offer counsel applicable to the local church context:

Born to Jewish parents in the Greco-Roman city of Tarsus, Paul came into the world a free man, having inherited Roman citizenship (Acts 22:28-29). Obviously, he was not raised in a Christian home but was educated in the Hebraic traditions of his ancestors to such an extent that he eventually became a Pharisee and was closely connected to the Jews’ highest ruling body, the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:3; 26: 4; Phil. 3:5). Furthermore, the apostle’s facility in quoting the Greek poets Aratus (Acts 17:28) and Menander (1 Cor. 15:33) as well as the Cretan Epimenides (Titus 1:12) suggests that he was well-versed in Classical Greek literature. Because of his multifaceted training, Paul was able to converse freely with Jews, Greeks, and other Gentiles.

After his conversion to Christianity and subsequent setting apart for ministry (Acts 9:1-22; Gal. 1: 15—2:1), he became known as “the apostle of the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13, cf. Gal. 2:9) and spent the remainder of his life ministering throughout the Roman Empire.

Paul was, most likely, writing from a Roman prison when he penned this first pastoral epistle. His incarceration for the gospel spanned approximately four years (AD 63-67) during which time it is thought that he composed the epistles to Timothy, Titus, and possibly the Hebrews. At the time of Paul’s imprisonment, Timothy was pastoring a local church in Ephesus and the apostle recognized that his pupil would probably need some guidance in fulfilling his role as the shepherd of a congregation. In the exegesis of verse 2 we will consider Timothy’s upbringing as well as the years he spent under Paul’s tutelage.

Although 1 Timothy is a letter of dynamic teaching and divine insight, it is still a letter. As such, the first priority on Paul’s agenda is to identify himself. In the Greek, “Paul” (Paúlos) means “small,” “few” or “chronologically short” and, as a name, may spring from Latin roots. However, Paul was not the apostle’s original name—he was first known as “Saul,” (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-28; 13:1-13), an appellation of Jewish derivation meaning “desired” or “asked for.”

There seems to be no clear explanation why Paul changed his name from Saul, but name-changing may have been a common practice among first-century believers as a sign of their new life in Christ. For example, Barnabas, Hebrew for “son of comfort”) was given his name by the apostles—he was originally called Joses (Acts 4:36).

Paul’s life before the Damascus road conversion involved intense persecution of the church and his conversion was nothing short of a miracle (Acts 9:1-22). It could be argued that the apostle was speaking autobiographically when he declared, “If any man be in Christ, he is a qualitatively new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17 a.t.). Christ revolutionized Saul the persecutor’s life, transforming him into the Apostle Paul who helped to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) with the good news of salvation.

In this verse, Paul stresses the fact that he was ordained an apostle (apóstolos, literally “one who is sent”) of Jesus Christ—not sent out by man but by the Lord Himself. Furthermore, his apostleship originated from the commandment (epitage\, injunction) of God alone as opposed to the machinations of mankind.

Paul’s salutation may appear a bit ambiguous at first glance, as it seems to intimate that God is our Savior (so\teâr, deliverer) as well as Jesus Christ’s. However, the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus, being sinless (Heb. 4:15), did not need a savior but came instead to deliver His people and all mankind (Matt. 1:21) from their lost estate and alienation from God (Matt. 18:11; Luke 19:10).

Not only is God our Savior—and by extension Jesus Christ as God incarnate (John 1:1; Col. 2: 9)—He is also our hope (elpís, joyful and confident expectation). Paul was acutely aware of sin’s constant tug on believers as well as Satan’s attempts to sidetrack them. Therefore, God’s children need hope, or expectation, that their resistance to the devil and their own sinful desires will pay off in the end. According to Paul, Jesus Christ Himself is the Christian’s expectation that no matter how difficult life may be on earth, He will help him out of his present distresses and catapult him into eternal life.
Verse 2
“Unto Timothy, my own son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Timothy, Paul’s constant companion and fellow laborer, was now overseeing a local congregation in Ephesus. The apostle viewed this young man as a son (téknon, newborn child) who was a genuine (gneâsios, true, sincere) believer. While the King James Version has rendered Paul’s statement as “my own son,” a more appropriate translation would be a “genuine son.” Actually, the latter interpretation encompasses both the apostle’s desire to claim Timothy as his spiritual child and his affirmation of the young man’s standing with God.

Further on in the passage (v. 20), Paul juxtaposes Timothy’s faithfulness with Hymenaeus and Alexander, who had forsaken the foundations of Christianity. In fact, the name “Timothy” literally means “one who honors God” and is derived from the Greek verb timáo\ (to esteem) and Theós (the true God). The young pastor’s life exuded reverence for the Lord and for those placed over him in authority. Now the Father had honored him by establishing him as the head of a local body of believers.

Not much is known of Timothy after he and Paul separated, but their journeys together are well documented in the Book of Acts. In his second epistle to the young pastor, the apostle emphasizes the faith that abode in both Lois, Timothy’s grandmother, as well as his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5). Both of these women were Jewish while his father was Greek (cf. Acts 16:1).

Paul first encountered Timothy on his second missionary journey through Asia Minor, while Paul was ministering in the vicinity of Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium, a triumvirate of cities just west of the apostle’s birthplace (Acts 16:1-4). From that time on, Paul and Timothy were almost constant companions—the only reason they did separate was for Timothy to stay behind and carry on the Lord’s work in a certain locale (Acts 17:15; 18:5).

In this verse, the apostle extends “Grace [cháris], mercy [eleos], and peace [eire\ne\\], from God” to his spiritual son. Since Timothy had clearly demonstrated his faith (pístis, trust) in the Father, he received gifts from the Father’s hand. Grace, mercy, and peace were the natural outflow of placing confidence in Christ’s atoning work as Savior. Timothy truly was a son (téknon) and Paul knew that these godly attributes would receive a ready welcome in the heart of his trusted companion.
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