Saint Paul’s first letter to Saint Timothy

This most touching letter of Saint Paul to one of his first bishops, after Saint Timothy had been given the care of the See of Ephesus, provides a short series of counsels for an infant church, establishing basic practices and providing counsel to the new bishop and the priests under him. I should begin with Paul’s greeting to Timothy as to his own son, for even if Timothy already was a Christian in Galatia when Paul met him (the image above demonstrates the conversion of Timothy, perhaps by Paul himself), he became a close follower of Paul and his disciple, and so developed the father-son relationship of the priest to his people and later the bishop to his priests – a relationship that Paul cherished until his death. 

“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the appointment of God our Saviour, and of Jesus Christ who is our hope, to Timothy, my own son in the faith; Grace be thine, and mercy, and peace, from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, as thou fulfillest the charge I gave thee, when I passed on into Macedonia, to stay behind at Ephesus.”

I Timothy, 1: 1-3

Paul had learnt, probably from a preceding letter of Timothy’s, that some gnostic elements had entered the Ephesian church, for he mentions the arrival of strange doctrines and legends and also the obsession with genealogy, which seems to have been rivalling Christian doctrine, which was based on charity, sincerity and a purity of heart. 

“There are some who have missed this mark, branching off into vain speculations; who now claim to be expounding the law, without understanding the meaning of their own words, or the subject on which they pronounce so positively.”

I Timothy, 1: 6-7

That suggests to me Christians who thought they could interpret and speculate on the Law of Moses, without any understanding of that Law. And in so far as they found themselves at odds with a strict Pharisee (a word that does not have to be used pejoratively) like Paul, even Paul who had been given a particular mission to non-Jewish Christians, they were probably mistaken. And Paul had apostolic authority to fight against the corruptions with even corrective punishments, as he seems to have done in two particular instances. Being made over to Satan was likely a reference to what we today call excommunication

“This charge, then, I give into thy hands, my son Timothy, remembering how prophecy singled thee out, long ago. Serve, as it bade thee, in this honourable warfare, with faith and a good conscience to aid thee. Some, through refusing this duty, have made shipwreck of the faith; among them, Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have made over to Satan, till they are cured of their blasphemy.”

I Timothy 1, 18-20

Prophecy singled Timothy out? Probably one or more Christian prophets of the early church had indicated this rather young man as a potential priest and even bishop. One of his chief duties as bishop would be to organise communal prayer for all mankind, but especially the government, which was the guarantor of peace.

“This, first of all, I ask; that petition, prayer, entreaty and thanksgiving should be offered for all mankind, especially for kings and others in high station, so that we can live a calm and tranquil life, as dutifully and decently as we may. Such prayer is our duty, it is what God, our Saviour, expects of us, since it is his will that all men should be saved, and be led to recognize the truth; there is only one God, and only one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is a man, like them, and gave himself as a ransom for them all. At the appointed time, he bore his witness, and of that witness I am the chosen herald, sent as an apostle (I make no false claims, I am only recalling the truth) to be a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles. It is my wish that prayer should everywhere be offered by the men; they are to lift up hands that are sanctified, free from all anger and dispute.”

I Timothy, 2: 1-8

There follow the now-controversial instructions about women dressing modestly in church, and keeping silence there, accepting a continual role of student/learner in the congregation. We might compare that requirement to that of many orthodox synagogues today; I have seen it observed in one of those. Chapter three is a description of the ideal bishop/priest and the ideal deacon, according to Paul. In those days, there was no great difference between bishops and priests; that developed later. Paul then warns again about what I’m sure are more gnostic ideas. He counters by saying that the gifts of God, given for the enjoyment of mankind, are not to be rejected. 

“We are expressly told by inspiration that, in later days, there will be some who abandon the faith, listening to false inspirations, and doctrines taught by the devils. They will be deceived by the pretensions of impostors, whose conscience is hardened as if by a searing-iron. Such teachers bid them abstain from marriage, and from certain kinds of food, although God has made these for the grateful enjoyment of those whom faith has enabled to recognize the truth. All is good that God has made, nothing is to be rejected; only we must be thankful to Him when we partake of it, then it is hallowed for our use by God’s blessing and the prayer which brings it.”

I Timothy, 4: 1-5

And that is followed by a call to holiness, which is not beyond the reach of any of us, for which we must be prepared to suffer, hoping in God our Saviour. And then, here’s some wonderful personal instruction to the young bishop/priest:

Do not let anyone think the less of thee for thy youthfulness; make thyself a model of speech and behaviour for the faithful, all love, all faith, all purity. Reading, preaching, instruction, let these be thy constant care while I am absent. A special grace has been entrusted to thee; prophecy awarded it, and the imposition of the presbyters’ hands went with it; do not let it suffer from neglect. Let this be thy study, these thy employments, so that all may see how well thou doest. Two things claim thy attention, thyself and the teaching of the faith; spend thy care on them; so wilt thou and those who listen to thee achieve salvation.”

I Timothy, 4: 12-16

That first bit sounds a little like, They will all call you Father and don’t let that bother you. And there also is our great ministry as priests, after the celebration of Holy Mass: reading, preaching and instruction. He even mentions Timothy’s ordination and asks him to look after both himself and the cultivation of the faith of the community. Chapter five contains practical advice about the administration of the goods of the Church, particularly with regard to the ministry of the care of widows and the remuneration of the priests in Timothy’s care, even warning that Timothy not ordain men (the imposition of hands) as priests inordinately, and to be careful with whom he ordained, because there might be faults concealed. 

“As for the imposition of hands, do not bestow it inconsiderately, and so share the blame for the sins of others. Keep thyself clear of fault. (No, do not confine thyself to water any longer; take a little wine to relieve thy stomach, and thy frequent attacks of illness.) Some men have faults that are plain to view, so that they invite question; with others, discovery follows upon the heels of enquiry; so it is, too, with their merits; some are plain to view, and where they are not, they cannot long remain hidden.”

I Timothy, 5: 22-25

The end of the letter contains a final set of warnings about good behaviour among Christian slaves (treat your masters well), the avoidance of vain preachers teaching their own ideas rather than the Christian Faith (the only result can be jealousy, quarrelling, recriminations and base suspicions), and the management of wealth (’empty-handed we came into the world, and empty-handed, beyond question, we must leave it’). From here we get the famous adage ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’

“Warn those who are rich in this present world not to think highly of themselves, not to repose their hopes in the riches that may fail us, but in the living God, who bestows on us so richly all that we enjoy. Let them do good, enrich their lives with charitable deeds, always ready to give, and to share the common burden, laying down a sure foundation for themselves in time to come, so as to have life which is true life within their grasp.”

I Timothy, 6: 17-19

And that is where he ends. Wouldn’t it have been great to have the full set of letters sent between him and Timothy – the whole conversation? As it is, the second letter to Timothy that we have in our Bibles is, I believe, much later in its composition, sent at a point where Paul was at the very end of his life. And I shall get around to that eventually.

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