Caring for the Elderly (1 Timothy 5:3-16)

Paul devotes a great deal of space to the care of widows in 1 Timothy, likely because this was a problem for Timothy in Ephesus.  The Hebrew Bible has a remarkable interest in the protection of widows (Exod 22:22; Deut 10:18; Ps 146:9; Deut 24:17-21). Based on the commands in the Law, Jews in the Second Temple Period took care of widows who had no protector. But what was the status of widows in the Greco-Roman World? When a woman married in the Greek world, she brought a dowry to the marriage. That dowry was managed by her husband; if he died then the dowry would be managed by her son. Winter cites W. K. Lacey, “the law was explicit; the person who had charge of her dowry had the obligation to maintain her” (117).

WidowThe situation in Roman culture was similar. In A.D. 9, Augustus created legislation which required a widow would re-marry if she were under 50. “‘There can be little doubt, that young widows, even if they had children, were expected to remarry,’ for remarriage provided a secure option for the younger widow” (Winter, 85).

For older widows, both Greek and Roman laws provided for widows. Winter comments that from a legal perspective, “a woman was never as thoroughly protected as she was in her old age” (86). As in most cultures, the law would not have protected every woman and many women may have found themselves widowed at a young age and without a protector. This would be especially true of the poor who perhaps did not have much of a dowry in the first place. Unlike contemporary culture, women in the Roman world had status and “social identity” through their family; first through their father, then later through their husband (Towner, The Pastoral Epistles, 334. ). To be single, widowed or divorced was not a normal status for a Roman woman.

Paul’s concern in this section is care for widows who are genuinely in need. Be begins in verse three with a general principle, honor widows. While the noun τιμάω does have the general meaning of honor, “set a price on,” etc., given the context Paul uses the word to refer to financial support of widows by the community of believers. Verses 5-8 are directed at families with widows. Paul is very clear that children and grandchildren have an obligation to care for their own elderly parents. This is essentially the point of the fifth commandment, to honor ones own father and mother. The verb is the same is used in both the commandment and this text, the allusion seems clear.

The context in 1 Tim 5 clearly refers to financial support for widows who have no other means of support (family, etc.) “Honor” here has the connotation of financial support, both here and in verse 17, where it refers to honoring the elder who teaches.

Why are there so many widows in the church that Paul needed to devote such a long section to their care? One factor is that most women in the first century married much older men. Evidence for this comes from Roman census records from Egypt, where 87% of marriages were to older men, from one to thirty years older. The early church reached out to the poor and slaves. It is entirely likely that this meant that a sizable minority in each church were un-supported widows. There may have been an attraction to Christianity because the church offered to help support a poor widow in ways that Roman society was not able or willing.

Paul uses the phrase “let a widow be enrolled,” implying that the church ought to keep track of women who were in need. The verb καταλέγω is used for enrolling someone a member of a group, like a soldier joining the army or a “membership list” for a religious organization (POxy 416, 4, for example).

Since the opponents in Ephesus rejected marriage, it is at least possible that they rejected other family obligations. Perhaps they used Paul’s own teaching about a “new creation” in Christ Jesus to argue that they had no obligation to other family members. If a person became a Christian, they might say, their old life is buried with Christ and they are under no obligation to care for widows in their own family, especially if they were unbelieving (Padgett, 21).

Paul wants the churches in Ephesus to care for widows who are in genuine need primarily because the church is a family.  His Jewish worldview would see it as shameful for a family to not “honor their mother” by refusing to help a widow in need.  This sort of  care for those who cannot care for themselves was something the church must do if they are going to be the people of God.

This is a very specific issue that will be increasingly important as the American church ages – how should the church respond an aging population? What is the responsibility of the family of God to care for the elderly?

Bibliography: W.K. Lacey, The Family in Classical Greece (London, Thames and Hudson 1968). Bruce. W. Winter, “Providentia For The Widows Of 1 Timothy 5:3-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 39 (1988), 82-99; J.M. Bassler, “The Widows’ Tale: A Fresh Look at 1 Tim. 5:3–16,” JBL 103 (1984): 23-41; A. Padgett, “Wealthy Women at Ephesus: 1 Timothy 2:815 in Social Context,” Interpretation 41 (1987): 21.

Eat, Drink, and Be Married! (1 Timothy 4:3-5)

In my previous post on 1 Timothy, I stated that you cannot really guess who these opponents are based on Paul’s four statements in 1 Tim 4:1-2.  He does give us more to go on in verses 3-4.  At the very least, we can say that the opponents in Ephesus are teaching some kind of ascetic practice that rejects (at least) two things that are good things created by God to be enjoyed.  Since both are embedded in the creation story, it is possible that the opponents rejected the creation story or thought that the created world was somehow corrupt.  This is the sort of thing that will eventually develop into Gnosticism, but I do not think that the opponents were Gnostic.

They abstain from some foods. Paul gives little detail here, but we know that what food one ate (or did not eat) was an important topic in the first century. There are many examples of both Jewish and Christian groups which abstained from foods either because of the Law or because that food was sacrificed to idols. The opponents are not simply abstaining from certain foods themselves, but they are teaching others that they also must abstain, perhaps in order to achieve a higher level of spiritual enlightenment.

They forbid marriage. While Paul does see value in celibacy for some in God’s service, he is quite clear in 1 Cor 7 that marriage is good, designed by God and something that ought to be celebrated. It is not clear what the opponents are forbidding, in the following section of the letter Paul advises that younger widows remarry, so it is at least possible that the prohibition is on remarriage after the death of a spouse.

Both food and sexual relationships are difficult topics in the first (and twenty-first) century. It is possible that these opponents are part of what will develop eventually into Gnosticism.

Paul’s argument is that God created both food and marriage and they are therefore good and cannot be rejected. Paul grounds his teaching in the Jewish view that God created food in the Garden to be enjoyed. In the case of food, Gen 9:3 declares that all food is permitted. The Gentile is not under the law (which forbids some foods), so to reject some foods in order to be “more spiritual” is not biblical. It is possible that there are some foods that ought to be rejected on health reasons, but modern ideas of vegetarian or vegan diet are far from what Paul has in mind here. The opponents seem to equate abstaining from some foods as a sign of spirituality.

eat-drink-and-be-married

Likewise, marriage is embedded in the created order and is to be celebrated as something good created by God. There are other elements of this “creation mandate” which may have been rejected, such as the value of work, but these are the two which Paul must prove “good” to Timothy (and the congregations) from scripture.

Both food and marriage are celebrated in the Hebrew Bible.  Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 is an example of this: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.”  This means that you ought to eat, drink, and be merry!  There is nothing in the Wisdom literature which says that God’s people of any age ought to reject good things created by God.

This may be a hint at the theology of the opponents. It is possible that they think that material, created things are corrupted by sin. In the Greco-Roman world food and sexual excess were commonly associated. If one is going to be spiritual, one cannot go to the banquets and indulge in gluttony and fornication. In order to guard against these things, the opponents reject enjoyment of food and sex altogether!

For Paul, both food and marriage ought to be enjoyed when they are received with “thanksgiving and prayer.”  He stands on the rich tradition of the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible and states that Christians ought to enjoy the good gifts that God has given.

Paul’s Confidence in the Flesh (Philippians 3:4–6)

Paul’s opponents may have claimed to be better qualified to explain the role of the Law for Gentiles because of their heritage and training. This is more or less equivalent to someone who claims to be an expert because they graduated with a PhD from Harvard (as opposed to a certificate from DeVry Institute? Fill-in your own institutions here…) Paul therefore takes a moment to boast about his personal heritage and achievements. Paul claims in Philippians is that he is a proper Jew who excelled in the practice of Second Temple Judaism more than anyone else of his generation.

First, he was circumcised on the eighth day. This indicates he comes from a family that is keeping the Jewish traditions despite living in Tarsus.  It is possible that there were Diaspora Jews who did not keep this tradition or even did not circumcise their boys.

Mudbloods-and-How-to-Spot-themSecond, he is a member of Israel connects Paul to the covenant as a member of Abraham’s family.  Paul was not a Hellenistic Jew from Tarsus pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.

Third, he is from the tribe of Benjamin is significant since not every Jew in the first century could claim to know they were from a particular tribe.  Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, Gamaliel, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.

Fourth, the phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” can be taken in several ways.  This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home.  If there is an increasing specificity in the list of descriptions, then perhaps Polhill is right and Paul is saying that he is from an extremely Jewish family, one that still speaks the language at home (Paul and his Letters, 26).

Fifth, with respect to religion, he is a Pharisee.  Second Temple Judaism had a number of sub-divisions, not exactly like modern denominations but that is a fair way to think about them. Sadducees and Pharisees are the two most well known in the New Testament, but there were several others. There are many ways to define the groups, but Paul’s emphasis might be on faithfulness to the Law and loyalty to Israel. Pharisees were not simply observant of the Law; they thought deeply about the Law and guarded themselves against breaking the Law unknowingly. They really could claim to be “blameless” with respect to law

Last, with respect to zeal, Paul says he was a persecutor of the church. Zeal has become a Christian virtue in modern Church-talk, usually equivalent to strong emotional response in worship. But that is not at all Paul’s point here. He is zealous for the Law and the traditions of his people in the same way the Maccabean Revolt was zealous for the Law. In that case, they fought the Greeks for the right to keep the Law. More important, they were willing to enforce the Law for Jews, including circumcision. Paul’s zeal was not a warm feeling of love for God, he was violently opposed to Jews who claimed the Messiah was crucified by the Temple authorities; he was willing to use physical abuse to convince people this Messiah did not rise from the dead.

Paul is, in the words of J. B. Lightfoot, making a progressive argument.  A convert to Judaism may be circumcised, someone with some Gentile in his linage might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew!  If anyone in the Second Temple period could boast about their heritage it was Paul!

What is the point of this boasting? In the light of Paul’s exhortation to humility in Phil 2, what do we make of Paul’s list of his achievements? How would those living in Greco-Roman Philippi hear this boast?

Philippians 4:4–7 – Do Not Be Anxious

While the following commands from Paul seem unrelated to the theme of unity, Frank Thielman argues they ought to be read in the context of persecution (Philippians, NIVAC, 217-9). While this is not an Empire-wide systematic persecution of believers, we have already seen several times in the letter than the church at Philippi was a small community of believers who are in many ways “different” from the Roman culture around them. The existence of a group of people who “have the mind of Christ” is enough to be suspicious, and suspicion easily gives way to gossip, wild accusations and pressure to conform. This sort of social pressure can be difficult to accept and a source of great fear for the church. Paul’s series of short exhortations in these verses are therefore designed to give comfort and encouragement to endure.

Alfred E. NewmanFirst, Paul encourages the church to set aside worry by rejoicing in their circumstances. If the context is social pressure on Christians in Philippi, then there may be some despair in the congregation. Paul repeats his call for joy regardless of circumstances here, recalling his words in chapter 1. Paul is in prison and may be executed for his faith, yet he rejoices in his circumstances.  He is modeling the kind of attitude he desires from the congregation.

This is not some sort of masochistic pleasure in suffering, but rather the sort of happiness that comes from understanding the circumstances properly. For example, someone who competes in athletics “suffers” greatly when they train. They consider the work they are doing well worth the pain because of the ultimate goal (winning the prize). The same is true for pursuing a college degree or training necessary to advance at a job. It is hard work, and might fairly be called suffering, but as painful as it is, from the perspective of the goal, it is a cause for rejoicing. Paul models this by counting his past achievements as a loss and “forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead” (3:12-14).

Second, Paul says the believer is to be “reasonable” (ESV) or “be gentle” (NIV 2011), or perhaps a “forbearing spirit” (BDAG). The Greek word (ἐπιεικής) does have the sense of kindness or courteousness. But it has the sense of kindness in a context where retaliation is expected. This fits well with the possibility of harassment and persecution as well. The believer responds to pressure to conform to the world in ways the world does not expect; instead of revenge and retaliation, we are to be reasonable, gentle, and forgiving.

Third, worry is not necessary because the “Lord is at hand. The phrase, “the Lord is at hand” may go with “be reasonable,” although it is probably better to see it as the reason we should not be anxious. This is not escapist, as if Paul is saying, do not worry about things since God is going to destroy it all soon anyway! The soon return of the Lord is a motivation for unity because the return will vindicate the righteous (rewarding them) while punishing the oppressors. Again, this is not some sort of defeatist, “hunker down and take it” attitude; Paul is once again pointing to the goal and understanding his present suffering in the light of future vindication at the return of the Lord.

Last, instead of worry, we are to bring requests to God in prayer.  Based on this verse, worry is sometimes considered a sin. But “worry” here is refers to anxiety or apprehension concerning present circumstances (suffering for the faith?) rather than faithlessness or a careless attitude toward life. Some worry is a “healthy concern.” If my car makes a funny noise it is a cause for concern; I might worry about some change in my health; I might be worried about how my children behave, or about my family’s health, etc. But if I begin to worry about your children, perhaps I have gone beyond healthy concern.

How much worry is unhealthy? Since Paul says we ought to bring requests to God in prayer rather than worry about them, perhaps the analogy of a “burden” is good here. Some things you can physically carry better than others, some people are stronger, better at carrying things, etc. Sometimes you need a little help carrying something heavy or awkward. Unhealthy worry may vary from person to person, but sharing the concern with others, first with the Lord is the best way to “share the load.”

Rather than be excessively concerned, Paul tells us to commit these things to the Lord in prayer in order to share the burden with the one who is able to carry it for you. If Paul has in mind pressure to conform to the Roman world faced by the church, but the application to contemporary Christianity life is clear. We are to let God carry our burdens rather than bear them alone.

Philippians 4:1–3 – Standing Firm in Unity

In this final encouragement toward unity, Paul addresses the leadership of the church at Philippi. He began the letter by addressing the elders and deacons (1:1), now he calls for the leadership of the church to demonstrate the mind of Christ by standing firm in unity.

“Stand firm” is a common phrase in Paul’s letters. It refers to being firmly convinced of a belief. In 1:27 he used the same word to encourage the believers to stand firm “in one spirit,” so they are able to withstand any oppression they might face as a result of their faith in Jesus. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:15 he encourages his readers to stand firm and hold on to the traditions they have been given; In Gal 5:1 the readers are to stand firm in the freedom they have in Christ and not go back under the yoke of the Law.

UnityOne of the major themes of this letter has been the unity of the church. Paul wants the church to “live in harmony” (cf. Rom15:5) by thinking the same thing in the Lord.”  Paul has used a similar phrase in 3:15 for the kind of intellectually unity necessary in the church, but also in 2:2, the church must be of “one mind” if it is going to have unity (2 Clem 17:3 uses the same phrase, possibly alluding to this text).

There may be some doctrinal unity in mind here, since this is the conclusion of a section describing the teaching of someone who opposes Paul. The church needs to think correctly about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross, for example. In the context, they need to properly understand the function of the Jewish Law in the current era.

But Paul calls for unity more often in practical matters and ethical choices. The church not only has to share the same doctrine, but also practice. In a church like Galatia, doctrine was a serious problem, but in Corinth behavior seems to be a bigger issue. As he has said throughout the letter, the church has to be of “one mind,” and they should have the “mind of Christ.”

This is the real problem with unity. There are some doctrinal and ethical matters I cannot set aside in the interest of unity. Every denomination and church has some doctrinal formulation that is considered foundational as well as behaviors considered unacceptable. How do we balance important distinctions and maintain unity in the Body of Christ?

1 Peter 1:16 – Be Holy!

[The audio for the January 19, 2014 evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. This is part of a series of sermons on 1 Peter, beginning here.]

In his opening prayer for his readers, Peter described our salvation as “unable to be lost.” By its very nature, our great salvation cannot fade or be destroyed and God himself keeps it safe in heaven.  If this is true, then there are some ethical implications – why should the believer live out a live that is moral and ethical, if salvation is no longer dependent on good behavior or adherence to ritual? The reason, Peter says, is that our great salvation was bought with the ultimate price, the blood of Jesus.  We ought to therefore be holy, because the one who has called us to this great salvation is holy.

Since we have such a great salvation, Peter concludes that our response ought to be holiness. The section begins with “therefore.” The Greek conjunction διό draws a strong inference that is usually self-evident. This is not “if everything in verses 3-12 is true…” it is more like “Since all this is true….”

St BenedictPeter state that since the Lord has called us to such a great salvation, we ought to “be like” him, citing the book of Leviticus. Typically modern readers think of holiness as some sort of moral quality, avoiding certain vices and practicing certain religious virtues. A “holy man” is a monk who lives in a cave and does nothing but pray and meditate all day long. They are separate from the world quite literally.

But holiness in Leviticus is always associated with something that separates Israel from the world. One example might be the food laws. We read Lev 17 and wonder how God could forbid his people from eating pig (usually we try to find some reason for God’s commands, maybe there was a health reason for avoiding pork, etc.). But the food laws function as a boundary marker, defining how the covenant people are to live differently than the nations.

At the very foundation of all of the commands of Leviticus is the idea that God himself is holy, completely separate from sin. He expects his people to be separate from the world as well and he gives a series of principles in Leviticus that will ensure that God’s people think and act differently than the world.

What is holiness in this context? To be holy is to be set apart from the world in some very real way. In the present age, this is certainly not following the Law from the Old Testament (if you wonder about this, re-read Galatians!). But it means being separate from the way the world thinks and behaves.

If we are “changing the way we think” in order to be more holy, then there are many ways in which we will start to think differently and talk differently than the world. In the case of the first century, the Christians began to think differently about the Roman Empire. The Emperor did not bring peace to the world, and salvation is not to be found in loyalty to the Roman empire. The gods honored by the Roman world are not true gods at all. All this lead naturally to withdrawal from civic events that honored Rome and the Emperors as divine; they did not participate in festivals that were dedicated to the worship of the gods.

This is easily illustrated in the way the secular world describes an unborn baby (fetus or baby?), or perhaps in the way the secular world defines tolerance (toleration of any views except conservative Christian), or variations in sexual practice (preference as opposed to deviation?).

The bottom line is that if you are preparing your mind and thinking clearly, then you will think different than the world in many ways. And some of those thoughts will be dangerous!

1 Peter 1:3-12 – Our Great Salvation

[I am back to teaching the New Testament in my Sunday Evening Bible Study. I spent the Fall teaching in 1 Samuel so I did not post notes for that series here, and we had several weeks off for special holiday services or bad weather. Starting January 12 I plan on teaching through 1-2 Peter and Jude in my Sunday Evening Bible Study, while blogging through the Jewish Christian Literature (Hebrews through Revelation). The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service.]

Last WillIt is possible that the original readers of 1 Peter wondered about the status of their salvation. They knew that God had promised the Jewish people a return from the exile, a return to the “promised land” and a righteous and just king to rule over them in a time of prosperity.  Yet the Jewish people remain in exile, Rome rules over them with an iron fist, and the political circumstances of the early 60s would seem to indicate that some sort of war between Rome and Jerusalem was inevitable. The original readers believed that Jesus was in fact the messiah and that his death and resurrection had inaugurated that new age. They were awaiting the return of the messiah to establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. But instead of a glorious return of the messiah, the original readers of this letter were suffering oppression and persecution as a result of their faith in Jesus as Messiah. It is unlikely this was the sort of systematic persecution by Rome that would later be the case, but it was no less shocking given the hope they have in Jesus.

Does the persecution mean that they have not inherited salvation? Have they put their faith in Jesus in vain? Peter’s point in these opening verses is that the believer in Jesus has a new status (they are born again into God’s family) and that their inheritance is kept for them by God himself. In fact, by its very nature, their inheritance is unable to fade or become worthless.

Peter describes our salvation as an unfading inheritance (vv. 3-5). Peter is writing to Jewish Christians who are in fact suffering for their faith, so in this introductory prayer he introduces the main themes of the letter. The Christian will suffer in this age, but that suffering is not an indication of punishment. In fact, genuine salvation is completely secure because it is kept by God himself.

First, we are born again into a living hope. While “born again” is a common way to describe Christians in the contemporary church, Peter is the only writer in the New Testament to use the verb ἀναγεννάω to refer to the spiritual experience of the believer, although the concept appears in 2 Cor 5, for example, and is implied in several adoption passages (we are children of God, etc.). John 3 also describes a relationship with Jesus as being born again.

All of this language refers to the Holy Spirit’s regeneration of the believer. Peter says here that we have “a great salvation” not simply because we get to go to heaven someday, but because we have been fundamentally changed through the power of the Spirit of God and the resurrection of Jesus. Ernest Best points out that this should not be reduced to a metaphor. It is not the case that believer’s experience is “like being born again,” we are in fact born again (1 Peter, 75.)

FortKnoxSecond, unlike an earthly inheritance, our salvation is an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”  A Jewish reader might hear the word “inheritance” as an allusion to the Promised Land, and these Jews are living outside that inheritance in  the Diaspora. Peter therefore uses three words to describe our salvation in terms in order to highlight the fact that by nature this inheritance cannot be lost. On the other hand, virtually the entire ancient world would understand the importance of preserving an inheritance for their descendants (Jobes, 1 Peter, 86). There was a great deal of social status and honor tied to the size and quality of an inheritance, and most people would have known a situation where an inheritance was far smaller than expected!

  • Imperishable (ἄφθαρτος) obviously refers to something that does not die. It is rarely used in the New Testament (8x including variants). It is likely that the next two words are expansions on the idea of an imperishable salvation.  How is our inheritance safe? It is pure and unfading. Paul used this word for the immortal God (Rom 1:23, 1 Tim 1:17), our reward (1 Cor 9:25) and our resurrection body (1 Cor 15:52).
  • Undefiled (ἀμίαντος) can be translated “pure” in a moral sense (Heb 7:26 for Jesus as the pure high priest), or a religious sense (James 1:37).  2 Maccabees 14:36, 15:34 uses the word for the temple, and it appears three times in Wisdom (3:13, 4:2, 8:20).
  • Unfading (ἀμάραντος) only appears here in the New Testament, and in the LXX only in Wisdom 6:12 (unfading wisdom).

Peter’s point is that the readers do not need to be concerned that their inheritance will be lost since it is “unable to be lost” by its very nature.

Third, our salvation is secure because it “has been kept in heaven” and guarded by the power of God. The reason our great salvation is secure is that we are not guarding it, God the Father himself is keeping it for us. The Greek syntax is important here, the verb is a perfect passive participle. Our inheritance has already been kept (the perfect) and it is not kept by us, but for us (the passive). The believer is not responsible for keep their salvation, or maintaining their salvation. It is an expectation that will be realized at some point in the future.

Ultimately that salvation will not be fully revealed until the “last time.” While we might here “when we get to heaven” in this statement, Peter has in mind the return of Jesus, the ultimate vindication of Jesus as the Lord of this world.  We tend to think something like, “since Jesus died for me, I get to go to heaven,” which of course is true. But Peter’s Jewish theology and world view emphasized the return of Jesus to render justice and establish his kingdom more completely.

In summary, we can be certain that our salvation is secure because it is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus, by its very nature it cannot decay, and it is being kept by God himself in heaven.  If this is the case, what should Christians think about their “present suffering”?