Updated: Nov 9, 2022
Are our leaders living out the gospel of Jesus? Are we?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Timothy 1:3-17
Timothy has found himself in a church where people teach the law to sound spiritual. Paul makes it clear that the law is just to point sinners to Jesus, so real church leadership is about a life of gratitude, humility, and commitment that reveals the glory of God and leads people to salvation (and transformation) in Christ.
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Lost Art of Letter Writing.
All of us—even the teenagers among us—have gotten a handwritten letter or note at some point in our lives. I know from talking to you that for some of you, a particular letter was very meaningful in your life. I have gotten cards of encouragement at such keys times that I have kept them. Ask your class about important letters in their lives. That’s what we’re dealing with in the next few months in Sunday School: personal letters that Paul wrote to two young leaders, Timothy and Titus. Perhaps we will be encouraged by this to write some notes to people we know who could use the encouragement!
We’re Just Making It Up as We Go.
It might be a while since you’ve done this . . . Do you remember making up games when you were a kid? I do. We would make up games all the time. One that I still remember is “Monkeybar-Basketball”. I don’t remember all of the rules (and that’s kind of the point—they changed all the time), but we played it with a kickball, and we got points if we could get the ball through the monkeybars. The closer to the middle, and the more points we got. Goaltending was legal, and so was dunking. And we also made up “Blind Missiles”. Two of us would draw a “base” on a piece of paper and then protect it with drawn barriers. The other person would put a pencil down on paper and then close his eyes. If we could get to the base without hitting any of the barriers, he won. We had rules (that I don’t remember) about how many and big the barriers could be, how large the base had to be, and so on. Great fun! Ask your class about games they made up as kids.
Here’s where I’m going with this. Do you remember getting into arguments with your friends about the rules of your made-up game? I sure do. We got into some serious yelling matches about the rules. What was the problem? We made up the rules, and we would change the rules, and who was the arbitrator who would determine the “true” rule when we disagreed? That’s what Paul was dealing with in these churches. They were essentially starting a new religion, and people who hadn’t been Jesus’ disciples were coming in and making up their own rules. Timothy and Titus had to convince them that there were “true” rules. Does that sound easy?
This Week's Big Idea: Everything We Know about the Letters to Timothy
Who Was Timothy?
Timothy grew up in Lystra to a Jewish mom and a Gentile dad. According to Paul, both his mom and his maternal grandmother had become Christians (2 Tim 1:5), and that must have happened very early because Timothy grew up being taught the Scriptures. We can put this on our Acts timeline. Paul visited Lystra during his first two missionary journeys. You might remember from last year (when we studied Acts) that the first journey took place around 45-47 AD, and the second around 50-52 AD. His first time in Lystra (Acts 14:8-20), Paul healed a man, and the Greeks there thought he was one of their gods come to earth. This led to a great deal of confusion, and Paul was eventually dragged out of town and stoned. His second time in Lystra (Acts 16:1-5), all we read is that Timothy was there and highly regarded by the local Christians, so much so that Paul wanted to bring Timothy on the rest of his journey. Remember that Pentecost, which was the earliest time that Timothy’s family could have been converted (and isn’t it cool to speculate that Timothy’s mom and grandmother were at Pentecost?), happened around 30 AD. So unless Paul was using a figure of speech, Timothy would have been about 20 when he first joined Paul (and he would have been a teenager during Paul’s first visit, and he may have become a Christian then—note that Paul called Timothy his “true child in the faith, 1 Tim 1:2; but how traumatic to then see Paul get stoned!). By any standards, that made Timothy a very young missionary, but old enough to take ownership of the decision to be circumcised out of respect for the Jews (Acts 16:3). Timothy would go on to become Paul’s most trusted companion, being sent on a number of critical and difficult solo missions (see Acts 17:14-15, Acts 18:5, Acts 19:22, Acts 20:4, Rom 16:21, 1 Cor 4:17, 1 Cor 16:10, 2 Cor 1:19, Phil 2:19, 1 Thess 3:2). In fact, Timothy is listed as a “co-author” of 6 of Paul’s letters: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. I’m impressed on just how integral Timothy was to Paul’s leadership!
When Was This Written?
One challenge we have, having so much information about Timothy, is reconciling this letter with the information we have in Acts. Timothy was in Ephesus when Paul wrote the first letter to him; Paul wanted to come and visit him, but if he were delayed, he wanted to give practical advice to Timothy as a leader (and also things he could share with the church). Most scholars have concluded that Paul must have gotten out of prison after the events of Acts, and then he conducted another extensive missionary journey (which includes the work mentioned to Timothy and Titus). This was the belief of church leaders in the third century, and I don’t see any reason to doubt them. That would put this first letter to Timothy around 63 AD. By the second letter, Timothy was still in Ephesus, but Paul was back under arrest and awaiting execution, so around 67 AD. The takeaway? Paul got out of prison after Acts and got back to work.
Paul’s Purpose for Writing.
Ephesus was a key church in early Christianity. The city was the political, religious, and commercial hub for all of Asia Minor. It was the home of the Temple of Artemis/Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In Paul’s day, it was possibly the fourth-largest city in the world, ~250,000. It’s theater could seat 24,000 (!). I might liken it to being the pastor of First Baptist Los Angeles (which technically does exist)—huge city, important, worldly, not amenable to conservative Christian values. Can you imagine the challenges of being a pastor in that kind of situation? I can’t. As to be expected, there were many different ideas about how church services should operate, who should be in charge of what, and there was definitely a generational power struggle going on. So Paul wrote to Timothy with practical advice on how to handle the situations and what to teach the people.
The Bible Project.
I always encourage you to use the free videos at The Bible Project:
What I always like about their work is how clearly they make each connection to Jesus. In this letter, the church is the body of Christ, and we are perceived as representatives of Christ. Shouldn’t those things heavily influence how we treat one another, what we teach, and how we organize? Lifeway picks up on these themes, but more from the perspective of making sure that the church teaches the right things about Jesus and His expectations.
Our Context in This Letter
Paul spent more time as a missionary in Ephesus than anywhere else (recorded): two years. The church grew and brought in Gentiles who had grown up in an extremely non-Christian culture, and they brought those ideas with them. Paul sent Timothy as his personal representative to keep this important church on the right path. Our passage this week in the entire introduction, in which Paul summarizes Timothy’s job and gives encouragement.
Part 1: Accountable (1 Timothy 1:3-7)
As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach false doctrine or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith. Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and turned aside to fruitless discussion. They want to be teachers of the law, although they don’t understand what they are saying or what they are insisting on.
Rather than give the customary blessing, Paul jumps right to the point. My belief is that Paul had a close relationship with Timothy, so there was no need for the pleasantries. And what a challenge Paul had for Timothy! “The people in this church are teaching falsehoods with a bad motivation, and it’s leading them to live wrongly. Fix it.” Yeah, Paul, no problem! I got this. *Yikes!*
What were Paul and Timothy doing at this time? Remember from my introduction that I believe this letter was written after the imprisonment mentioned in Acts. Timothy was with Paul for at least some of that time (see Philm 1). Here’s one possibility for what was going on. Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians during his first Roman imprisonment; Priscilla and Aquila were leading the church at that time (and having problems). Perhaps Paul sent Timothy to them with this letter and the instruction to stay in Ephesus and help them straighten things out. At some point, Priscilla and Aquila decided to move back to Rome, leaving Timothy in charge (and very alone). When Paul got out of prison, his missionary work took him to Macedonia and not to Ephesus. Knowing that Timothy would be tempted to join him there, Paul specifically tells him to stay in Ephesus. Perhaps Timothy just wanted to see him again. Perhaps Timothy was tired of getting the dirty jobs (see 1 Cor 16:10). But this dirty job was too important, and Paul needed Timothy to stick to it.
“Certain people” were teaching falsehoods in the church. These people probably included Hymenaeus and Alexander from v. 20—not outsiders, but church members. They were teaching “false doctrine”, which meant things that were at odds with what Jesus taught. Also, they focused on “myths and endless genealogies”. Greeks and Romans loved myths. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were foundational to their self-understanding as a people and culture. Most likely, these Gentiles were taking Old Testament stories and giving them the exciting myth treatment (can you imagine the story of Noah in the style of Hermes or Apollo? Or that of Abraham in the style of Persephone? Very exciting—yes! Very messed up—yes!) It led to empty speculation because they were literally making up the stories as they went. What harm is that? Don’t we do the same thing when we make a movie version of a Gospel? Well, kind of. The difference is that these leaders were focusing on their made-up stories and using them as the source of truth for the church (just like ancient Greece got its values of manliness and heroism from Homer). That’s not good. There’s only one source of truth that has eternal, saving impact: the gospel of Jesus Christ. No one can “make up” a story that truly saves.
The clue for Timothy was the purpose and point of true vs. false stories. The whole point of the false teachers was to create fascinating stories that promoted their favorite values. But there was nothing heart-changing about it, nothing more than reading a good fictional story that at best made you think. There was no power in it. Power—that results in a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith—could only come from an encounter with the Holy Spirit.
Ask your class what they want to be known for: interesting but ultimately fruitless discussion (sports, the weather, complaints, news) or discussion that refreshes our hearts, spirits, and faith? I know from experience that Sunday School classes can get sideswiped by someone’s problems or complaints, all the while they don’t really want help in making a Christlike choice—they just want to complain or gossip. That’s exactly what Paul is warning us about. Or classes who want to talk about prayer or about the end times all the while having no desire to actually pray more or live with more urgency. They want to be “experts” on subjects they don’t really care about; they just want people to think they are spiritual.
Aside: Letter Writing in the First Century
Ask your class if they know the "proper" form for a letter today. Basically, you start with the sender's address (usually in the letterhead), followed by the date written, the recipient's address, the salutation, and the typist's initials (remember those days?). Who came up with that format? I did a little digging and couldn't find anything helpful.
As you might imagine, every culture has its own general form for letters; Greeks and Romans were no different. One fascinating resource from the first century has survived: Epistolary Types, which identified 21 types of letters and gave examples of each (more have been identified since). Personal letters (not to a lawyer or official) often had a simple format. Here is a letter written from 1st century Egypt:
Hilarion to his sister Alis, very many greetings and to my respected Beerous and to Apollonarion. Know that we are still at this moment in Alexandria. Don't be anxious if all of them return and I stay in Alexandria. I ask you and urge you, look after the child and as soon as I receive my pay, I will send it up to you. . . . I ask therefore that you not be anxious--29th year of Caesar, 23rd of Pauni.
Here is a letter from early 2nd century:
Apollonia and Euponus to their sisters Rasion and Demarion, greetings. If you are in good health, that is well. We ourselves are in good health too. You would do us a favor by lighting the lamp in the shrine and shaking out the cushions. Keep studying and do not worry about mother. . . Farewell. And don't play in the courtyard but behave yourselves outside. Take care of Titoas and Spharos.
Some things never change. (Aren't those letter strangely fascinating!) Anyway, you get the drift of the format. There's an opening line that establishes the author and the recipient, followed by some kind of blessing. The body of the letter gets to an instruction of some kind, and there is a closing blessing. If the letter was dictated, that would be noted at the very end. Paul was so good at writing letters that he could give the outline of the entire letter in his opening blessing.
Part 2: In Light of the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:8-11)
But we know that the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately. We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and irreverent, for those who kill their fathers and mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral and homosexuals, for slave traders, liars, perjurers, and for whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which was entrusted to me.
Here’s Paul’s transition: “These people want to act like teachers of the law, but they have no idea what the law is really for.” The purpose of the law is not to make Christians feel guilty (the Holy Spirit does our convicting); it’s to make it clear to sinners that they are sinners in need of a Savior. Paul gives a rather extreme list, but lest someone say (like the rich young ruler) “I’ve not committed any of those sins!”, Paul ends with “and whatever else is contrary to the gospel”. And that covers a lot of sin. Anything we do that doesn’t bring glory to God or point people to God is this kind of sin. Anything we say that doesn’t point people to the glory of God as revealed in Jesus (whose saving work actually transforms us from the kind of lawbreaker Paul described into a new creation) isn’t the best way to spend our time. That’s why I strongly encourage you to keep your class on track with your Bible lesson. Of course griping and gossiping is not healthy for your class, but even talking about other people’s problems isn’t actually going to lead to lasting change and transformation. It’s only by focusing on Jesus (in His Word) that we can enjoy the kind of change that helps us in every part of life. Does that make sense? If we really want change in our lives, we actually need to spend less time talking about ourselves and our problems and more time talking about God’s Word.
You might have noticed that Paul’s list reflects the Ten Commandments (maybe ask your class if they can spot the connection). This is subtle way of hitting back at the so-called “law teachers” in Ephesus. Note that, just like Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10), Paul doesn’t start with commandments 1-4 but just focuses on 5-10. Why? Because someone who truly understood and followed the law would know that what’s most important is our personal and individual relationship with God, something that we fail to maintain as we should. How did Jesus summarize the law? “Love God” and “love your neighbor”. Paul focuses the list on “love your neighbor”, but his comment about the glory of God is all about “love God”. A healthy spiritual life must start with our complete love for God that seeps into every part of our being. (By the way, the “entrusted to me” line is to distinguish what Paul says from what these other teachers are making up in Ephesus.)
Aside: Homosexuals and Slavers
Paul’s list of lawbreaking is quite explosive, but I want to focus on two words in particular. The word translated “pervert” in the NIV is arsenokoitais. The word means “male homosexual”, something there were many of in the Roman world, which is why there’s a specific word for it in the Greek. Long story short—the Bible categorically condemns homosexual practice. In this passage, Paul lists it as an antithesis of the law, a supreme example of lawbreaking.
But that’s not really what I want us to notice here. The next group is “slave trader”, the Greek word andrapodistais. That word literally means “kidnapper” and was used in conjunction with slave trade. In the Roman Empire, there were three general sources of slaves: people who sold themselves or family members into slavery to repay a debt, people who were on the losing side of a battle, and people who were quite literally kidnapped. When someone’s father or uncle sold them into slavery, that person thought of themselves as having been kidnapped. The same is true of a non-military resident of a city that had just been conquered; when they were captured by the Romans, they thought of themselves as having been stolen. What I find important about this is the explicit condemnation of human slavery (except for debt slavery, which may be likened to indentured servitude, and POWs). This is a sneaky-strong political statement.
Part 3: In Response to Grace (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me, because he considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry—even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I received mercy because I acted out of ignorance in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate his extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Good luck with this, but save time for these verses! If you think you might get hung up on the list of lawbreakers, give yourself an out to keep moving. These are some of the most encouraging words in the Bible. John Newton saw in Paul’s experience the proof that God could save even a filthy slave trader like him, and that’s why we have the timeless song “Amazing Grace” in our culture. When Paul talks about his memories of his past self, there’s always a bit of awe in it. Some Christians today wrongly interpret that as bragging or showing off (and that’s why we have some testimonies that really play up how “bad” they used to be). But that’s not Paul’s point at all! Paul is amazed (1) that God would care at all about sinners so as to save them, and (2) that God would care at all about him enough to make him a part of the gospel enterprise. Why would God do that? Paul doesn’t know! And that’s the point—Paul doesn’t understand why God would show him this kind of mercy and trust, and so Paul will live every waking moment “making good” on the investment God made in him. Not to earn salvation, but in gratitude. You might remember the stories from Acts—early Christians didn’t know what to do with the news that a former persecutor was now on their side, but they became thankful.
Look at how Paul described himself: blasphemer, persecutor, and arrogant. Those last two make sense; Paul owned them. The first one is surprising, and it says a lot about any spiritual teacher who is not a Christian. Paul was a super-Jew. One of the best and brightest of “God’s people”, and yet he realized he was just a blasphemer. Why? Because he was teaching others about a God he didn’t really know. How can we know God? Only through Jesus Christ, whom He sent (John 1:18). The same is true of anyone who claims to teach about God but is not a Christian. Whatever insight they have is not from God, and so they are blasphemers (“one who speaks dishonestly about God”).
Paul’s “acted out of ignorance in unbelief” is a key phrase. Of course Paul taught falsely about God when he was not a Christian! He was lost in his sin, just like every non-Christian! God, in mercy, extended the offer of salvation to Paul and Paul accepted. But what does this mean for people who claim to be Christians and teach falsely? Well, I don’t think that goes over well. Obviously the sacrifice of Christ covers every sin, but there’s a reason why the Bible says that God holds Christian teachers to a higher standard than others. Sunday School teachers, let’s just stay true to teaching the Bible.
Paul considers himself a testimony to the grace of God, which is why he cares so much about behavior. What good is your testimony if the people on the outside associate you with bad behavior and lawlessness? Paul wants people to see in him a reason for hope. The false teachers in Ephesus don’t seem to care about that at all.
And so Paul spontaneously erupts into a shout of praise for God. Have you ever done that? (Like a “hallelujah!” except with more doctrine.) What would you praise God for right now?