1 Timothy 3:2-7 – Elders Must Be Above Reproach

The qualifications for the overseer are moral virtues which would be worthy of respect in the Greco-Roman world. He must be “above reproach.” Along with verse 7, this is the controlling theme of the whole passage.  Paul will repeat this for all members of the church in 5:7 and 6:14.

The husband of one wife. Of all the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, this is the most controversial in terms of modern application. It has been taken to mean that an elder must be married (rather than single or a widower) as well as an elder cannot have ever been divorced. In addition, most conservative churches will read this as “the elder must be a man.” Others understand this qualification as “having only one spouse.” It seems unlikely many early Christians polygamy (that was really only for the uber-rich like Herod the Great). But Paul’s point is the elder is to live a life that is worthy of respect. Someone who has a reputation for sexual escapades and messy divorces (as were common among the Roman elite) is not worthy of the noble task of being an elder.

 

Sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable. These four virtues are all common in Greco-Roman ethical texts.  Sober-minded (νηφάλιος) and self-controlled (σώφρων) in fact, are often associated with the cardinal virtues in the Greek world. To be sober-minded is to be level headed and in control of one’s passions at all times. Paul has already used respectable (κόσμιος) in 2:9 for appropriate dress.  To be hospitable is a virtue among both Greeks and Jews (φιλόξενος means “a friend of strangers.”) 1 Clement 12:3 (about A.D. 95) used this noun to describe Rahab, Epicticus combines hospitable with respectable to describe the fall of Alexander.

Able to teach. From this one exceedingly rare word (διδακτικός), elders are usually tasked with teaching scripture in church.   Philo (On Rewards, 27) used the word in a virtue list to describe Abraham, Yonge translates the word as “self-taught,” Rengstorf comments that Philo has in mind the virtue of Abraham “consisting or expressing itself in learning.”

Not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. These vices are all commonly rejected by virtually every society – no one wants a leader who is a violent, greedy drunk! A drunkard is a good translation since the emphasis is “one given to too much wine.”  Moulton and Milligan (496) offer several examples of drunkenness and violence, “I sinned and was drunken in the night, in that I maltreated the brethren” (P.Lond 1914.27), although this dates to A.D. 335.

The next phrase is related to drunkenness. “Not violent” (πλήκτης) is sometimes translated as pugnacious, a bully. The verbal cognate appears in Aristotle, Ethics Eud. 2, 3.  “Gentle” stands in contrast to drunken violence, although the noun could be translated as courteous or tolerant.  “Not quarrelsome” is a single word (ἄμαχος) which means peaceful (anti-war, put it is used in non-military contexts, including a grave inscription by a husband describing his beloved wife (Cos 3259). A “lover of money” is greedy (ἀφιλάργυρος), a virtue found in instructions to people from midwives to generals (BDAG).

The family of the overseer is important.  “He must manage his own household well.” This is far more than a single word, and Paul gives a reason for the elder to have a well-managed household: an elder is in charge of the household of God, if he is not faithful in his own family, he will not be faithful in the church either.  The verb (προΐστημι) means to exercise authority, or “be the head of” something, and the very is modified with the adverb “well.” On the one had, this could be taken to mean he is a good leader in the home.  Josephus (Ant 8.300) used the word to describe the wickedness of King Jeroboam, who did not appoint kind rulers who would “govern righteously.” But the verb can have the meaning of “have care for.”  In 1 Thess 5:12-13 this is the word used to describe the activity of the church leaders (they are to care for the needs of the church).  If a person does not take care of his family properly, why should he be trusted to care for the family of God in the church!

This description of a proper leader in the church opens up some problems for application, possibly because pastor’s children are held to a high standard and are often judged as little hellions. At what point does a pastor / elder use the behavior of their children as a measure of how well a pastor / elder has led in their home? This is something like the application of the Proverbs, all things being equal, raise up a child in the way they should go and they will not depart from it. But sometimes that does not happen and a child, through their own choices, seriously defect from the faith of their parents.  A bad child is not always the sign of a bad parent.

He must not be a recent convert.  Perhaps this is the problem with the overseers who have defected from Paul’s gospel, they were to quickly accepted as leaders in the church and were arrogant.  At least in the mid-first century, this might have been a real problem since it was probable that churches were established from only new converts. But by the early 60s it was possible that there were now second generation believers and people who had been Christians for many years.  Paul is advising that these mature believers be considered for leadership, not a recent convert.

The reason given is that they could become arrogant and fall into “condemnation of the devil.”  What does this mean?  Probably that the new elder would be judged like the devil, who also fell because of pride. How they “fall” might be a hint of the false teachers.  Their arrogance leads them to accept teaching that is outside of the faith passed from Paul to Timothy, they more easily accept new and innovative doctrines, perhaps of their own making, because they do not have the spiritual maturity to resist being on the “cutting edge.”

If these are the qualifications of a church leader, what kind of person is Paul describing? If this was a person who is “worthy of respect” in the Greco-Roman world, are these sorts of things still “worthy of respect” today? Are there culturally conditioned behaviors which might make a person less “worthy of respect” in a modern context which are not on this list? Perhaps there are some cultural values we might consider worthy which are missing from this list, should they be considered when discussing the qualifications of an elder?

1 Timothy 3:2 – Defining the Role of Elder

One of the problems reading 1 Timothy 3 is modern readers define the world elder through the lens of our modern church experience. While the office of elder does develop from Paul’s teaching in this passage, it is hard to say what we call an elder in churches today is the same thing Paul described in 1 Timothy. Elder boards in American churches tend to look quite a bit like boards which run large businesses. This is especially true for larger churches where a great deal of money and property is involved. Sometimes elders are appointed for what the contribute to the needs of the church. Unfortunately, some churches use financial contribution as a measure of what makes a good elder. Churches need accountants and people with a good head for running a business, so they tend to be appointed to a corporate elder board to run the business end of the church.

This is absolutely the opposite of Paul’s description of church leaders in 1 Timothy 3!

The overseer (ESV, Greek, ἐπισκοπή) was a kind of household manager. It was a “position of responsibility, position of oversight” (LN 35.40). In Septuagint, Genesis 50:24 used the word to translate פקד, a verb which is usually translated visit, but has the sense of look over and inspect something. Joseph says in the future, God will inspect Israel and guide them out of Egypt. In the history of the Greek language, the word was used for a wide variety of civil officials (TDNT 2:611 for examples). In the LXX the word occasionally is used to describe officers or rulers (Num 31:14, 2 Kings 11:15, Judg 9:28, Isa 60:17).

BishopIn the New Testament, the overseer appears to be the same as elder. A presbuteros (πρεσβύτεροι in Acts 20:28) generally refers to older men, but it was used as a technical term for an office in the synagogue prior to A. D. 70. As well as for members of the Sanhedrin. The term appears in Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22f; 16:4 with respect to the Jerusalem church, and in Acts 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet 5:1, 5 with respect to churches (whether Jewish Christian or Gentile).

Since the word “bishop” carries some (often negative) historical baggage, most modern translations use “overseer.” It is possible Timothy and Titus were both functioning as bishops, something like “pastors to the pastors.” They overseeing a number of churches. has sent Timothy to Ephesus to deal with a particular problem with elders who have defected from the truth and are behaving in a dishonorable way.

It is important to notice Paul never uses the word priest to describe the leadership of Christian churches. This would be highly unlikely for a Jewish-Christian writer since that language was never used to the synagogue. Essentially Paul is taking over the language of the leadership of the synagogues and using it to describe the leaders of individual house churches. In addition the word priest would man something quite different to a Gentile.

Paul is using a household metaphor which would have been understood by the members of the church. The Pastoral letters often use the metaphor of a household to describe the church and elsewhere Christ is described as a head (although of a body rather than the head of a household). If the church is like a Roman household, then members of the household may be appointed to manage aspects of the household or be given responsibility for what occurs in the household.

If Paul conceived of the leadership of a church as servants appointed by the master of the house, should church leadership be appointed for their business experience? How would the image of an elder as a household manage change the way the American church organizes itself? Is the corporate board model wrong?

1 Timothy 3:1 – A Noble Task

First Timothy 3 and 1 Titus 1 are well-known passages because the describe the qualifications for church leadership. We usually fret the most over the line about “one wife” and perhaps that the leader must have well-behaved children, but there is far more here than those two more controversial points.

TimothyLike the previous section, Paul’s main concern is that the church be organized and led in a way which gives it a good reputation with outsiders. This is also true in business: good reputations are hard to build, they take time. On the other hand, it does not take much at all to destroy a good reputation and develop a bad one.

If you have ever read a restaurant review online, you know that one bad experience can lead to a terrible review and potential lost business. One cranky customer who has bad food or poor service can leave a review (anonymously) online and scare dozens of people away. The same is true for church. A family might visit on a Sunday when things were not quite right in the nursery, the musicians were out of tune and didn’t really know the songs, or the pastor finished their sermon on the way to church. This visitor leaves unimpressed and never comes back, but they tell their friends they tried “that church” and it wasn’t very good.

But Paul is not talking about “church shoppers” in this text because this really did not happen in the first century. Paul is talking about leaders in a local house church who had a bad reputation with the community. Maybe they had some shady business practices or they were quick to bring lawsuits. Maybe they are known to attend the banquets at pagan temples and fully participate in debauchery. If the leader has a bad reputation outside the church, then they will bring their dishonor with them when the “desire to be an overseer.” To remedy this situation, Paul tells Timothy (and by extension, the churches) to appoint people to the office of Elder and Deacon who are qualified spiritually and morally for the task.

First Timothy 3:1 is another “trustworthy saying.” In this case it is not a theological statement, but that the person who aspires to be a leader in the church “desires a noble task.” Desiring to be a leader of a local house church is not a bad thing at all, it is a noble task, or a “good work” (καλοῦ ἔργου). To “desire” something (ὀρέγω) is not necessarily bad, Hebrews 11:16 uses the word for the desire to reach heaven. But the also word appears in 1 Timothy 6:10 for those who crave money and have fallen away from the faith. Josephus used the word to describe John of Gischala desire to set himself as a rule (Life, 70).

It is possible this opening line on  church leaders betrays the problem in Paul’s churches in Ephesus. It appears some people did not want to serve as leaders in the church. There are several possible reasons for this. First, perhaps the false teachers had created a situation where good people were not inclined to challenge them. They did not desire to become involved in leadership because it meant challenging these false teachers. A second possibility is the role of overseer or elder was not considered to be a role people wanted to do. It was not considered a noble task. It is also possible there were some who were capable and qualified but did not see themselves as “up to the task” of leading the church.

One serious problem for reading this passage is that we hear words like “elder and deacon” and immediately think of our modern church office of elder and deacon. This is anachronistic and does not help us understand Paul’s view of church leadership. If at all possible, it is best for us to bracket out modern church practice for a few minutes and try to read Paul in the context of first century Ephesus.

Disrupting the Quiet Life – 1 Timothy 2:8-10

Having described the “quiet life” as a Christian virtue, Paul now discusses two potential disruptions of that quiet life.

First, men are command to pray without anger or quarreling (v. 8). It seems odd that people would pray in the church “in anger,” perhaps continuing arguments they were having in the act of prayer. The noun Paul chooses here (διαλογισμός) does in fact focus on differences of opinion which can develop into an argument. In Luke 9:46 it is used for the disciples arguing among themselves over who was the greatest, in Phil 2:14 Paul uses it in conjunction with grumbling.

It is possible some people were using public prayers to condemn their opponents, continuing their dispute in prayer, when the opponent cannot respond immediately. Something like “Lord, open the eyes of my rather dull brother in Christ so that the Holy Spirit will teach him that clearly I am right and that he is wrong, may he repent soon of the sin of his stupidity in disagreeing with me over this minor point of theology.” It is possible some men in the church thought a public prayer was an opportunity to be a Roman Orator. Imagine someone imitating Cicero or a sophist in their public prayers!

Second, women are warned to dress modestly (v. 9-10). While this might seem to be a different topic, Paul is still talking about things which potentially cause disorder and chaos in during prayer. Paul makes a contrast between external adornments (jewelry, clothing hair styles) and godly, good works.

Amish Girls on Roller Skates

Amish Girls on Roller Skates

Paul does not forbid people from looking good in public, nor is Paul commanding woman not fix their hair, use makeup or wear jewelry. What he is concerned about is an over-emphasis on external beauty. The hair style Paul mentions is preferred by the fashionable, wealthy women, even though it is the exact opposite of the hairstyles found in public statues of Imperial women. He describes the jewelry as “costly,” one of the stronger terms he could have used in this case. Paul is not saying that women should not wear any jewelry, but that it should not be overly expensive.

Bruce Winter points out that “jewelry epitomized sumptuousness” and was often associated with a shameful woman. He quotes Juvenal: “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears” (Satires, 6.458-59, cited by Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 208). These clothes are adorned with gold and pearl, two very valuable items in the ancient world. The great whore of Babylon is adorned with “gold and pearls” (Rev 17:4). Jesus used a “pearl of great price” as an analogy for the value of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 13:45).

If someone is wearing expensive clothing, real gold and pearls, they would be dressed like royalty! In Paul’s churches there are supposed to be no difference between rich and poor. A woman dressed like this is flaunting her wealth or her family’s wealth.

Remarkably, this advice does not vary much from that found in Plutarch, in his “Advice to a Bride and Groom.” Like Paul, Plutarch points out that external adornments are nothing compared to a virtuous woman:

For, as Crates used to say, ‘adornment is that which adorns,’ and that adorns or decorates a woman which makes her more decorous. It is not gold or precious stones or scarlet that makes her such, but whatever invests her with that something which betokens dignity (σεμνότης, 1 Tim 2:2), good behaviour (εὐταξία), and modesty (αἰδώς, 12 Tim 2:9). Plutarch, Praecepta Coniugialia 26 (Moralia II, 141e).

The real problem with this verse is defining “modest dress.” It is possible one person’s modesty will offend someone. The same thing is true for wearing expensive clothing: is this a question of Walmart vs. Kohls vs. Target vs. the trendy shops at the mall? I imagine Amish women get accused of immodesty for wearing the wrong color snood. Think about the difference between what a teenage girl wants to wear and what her father wants her to wear! What I personally think is too fancy and expensive is going to differ dramatically from another person’s view.

It is also important to read this text as applying to both men and women. If a man spends an inordinate amount of attention on his clothing, hair, and makeup, or if he is focusing on his external appearance and not putting on godly, good works, then he is just as much of a distraction as a woman. Men dressing immodestly is not the problem in Ephesus (men have other problems), but the application seems to be clear. Both men and women can dress in a way that distracts others and is not worthy of respect from outsiders.

Paul does not give all people permission to point out what they think is an immodest display, or a person wearing expensive clothing. He is urging people to think about the effect that their clothing might have on other people when they wear it in a worship service. There is no permission given here for you to be a jerk about what other people wear.

The controlling idea is living a quiet, dignified life, whether women or men are in view. In both cases Paul wants his congregations to worship in peace, without distracting from the proper focus of worship, the One God who wants to draw all people to himself.

Like other elements of this chapter, it seems easy to draw application to contemporary practice (“dress modestly”), but that simple application is taken as a judgmental attack by snooty old people on whatever new and trendy fashion younger Christians are wearing to church. Is this simply talking about wearing skinny jeans or yoga pants to church? An additional problem is that what counts as modest is quite different in other cultures. How is this command to dress modestly part of living the quiet life? How can it earn the respect of outsiders?

Learn in Quiet and Submission? 1 Timothy 2:11-15

1 Timothy 2:11-15 is perhaps the most troubling in the New Testament in terms of what Paul commands for his churches and his reasons for those commands. The command is for women “to learn in quiet and submission” (v. 11). As with Paul’s commands about modest dress, the most common way to explain these verses is to say that Paul is dealing with a particular problem with overbearing women teachers in Ephesus, and that the situation is unique. He is not intending to declare that women should be absolutely silent in church!

It is best to read this passage in the context of the quiet life Paul described in the first part of 1 Timothy 2. The “silencing of women” is an extension of the other disruptions to the quiet life in the preceding paragraph.

Paul says women should learn, but they ought to do so with the same sort of dignified grace he encouraged in the first seven verses of the passage. What are these women doing that is not “quiet”? This is left unstated, but it is possible the instructions on dress and teaching which follow are the hint that some women are “taking charge” in a way which would offend Greek and Roman outsiders.

This verse does not indicate to whom they ought to submit. It is often read as if Paul says that they ought to submit to their husbands (like Eph 5:22) or to the (male) pastor of the church. But that is not actually stated, so it is at least possible that this submission is to the word of God itself.

More difficult, Paul states that he does not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (v. 12). This is consistent with 1 Cor 14:34, and is also consistent with Jewish synagogue practice as far as we know in the first century. In addition, there is no evidence of women assuming the role of a teacher in a philosophical school or public venue.

Women did teach, but in private instruction (of children, for example). Priscilla is an example of a woman who taught Apollos in Acts 18:26. Towner suspects Paul’s freedom in Christ gave woman and slaves far more freedom in the church meeting than they would have had in a public meeting (Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 218.).

The problem in Ephesus is wealthy women in the church who were under the influence of the opponents, who used their prominence (wealth) to promote a teaching Paul has already rejected because it is incompatible with the Gospel.

The key word in the verse is “have authority over” (αὐθεντέω). The verb has the sense of “to assume a stance of independent authority, give orders to, dictate to” (BDAG), and the Jerusalem Bible has “tell a man what to do.” Much ink has been spilled trying to sort out what this word means in this context. (For example, G. W. Knight, “αὐθεντέω in Reference to Women in 1 Tim. 2,12,” NTS 30 (1984): 143-57). The noun (αὐθέντης) is usually translated master, and BDAG speculates the word is the source of the Turkish effendi.

The verb has the connotation of domineering, going a bit beyond the teaching of a lesson from the Scriptures. In the context of “wealthy women behaving badly” many scholars understand this term as prohibiting these women from assuming control of the church in order to promote their particular brand of false teaching. If the problem had been “wealthy men behaving badly,” Paul would have likely said the same sort of thing to them. Imagine, for example, what Paul might say to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist “church.”

The background in Ephesus is therefore important since it appears that some wealthy women are taking the Pauline idea of equality in Christ to insist they should be considered authoritative teachers and elders in the church and pushing their particular (defective) version of the Christian faith.

How does reading the command in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in the context of the quiet life impact contemporary church practice? If gaining the respect of outsiders is a factor, would the role of women in a church be different in a culture where women do not have prominent roles in society? Or is this an example of the church challenging culture with the truth of the Gospel?

The Quiet Life – 1 Timothy 2:3-4

1 Timothy 2 is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, primarily because of the potential abusive applications of the second half of the chapter. Paul’s words have been used to silence the voice of women in the church despite the very clear Pauline teaching that in Christ there is neither male to female. Perhaps the situation is clouded by American political debate over feminism and the role of women in the church. Before getting to the controversial section, I want to set the context of the chapter.

Cabin in the Woods, Quiet LifePaul’s main point in 1 Timothy is that the church ought to conduct itself in a way that is honoring to God and attractive to outsiders. In order to honor God, Paul insists Timothy guard the truth of the Gospel and train others to keep that deposit of truth faithfully. In this section of the letter, Paul tells Timothy the local church must conduct meetings in such a ways as to gain the respect of outsiders. On the one hand, this means praying for authorities, but more problematic is Paul’s concern that the behavior of some members of the congregation run the risk of repelling the outsider, the Greek or Roman who needs the Gospel.

Paul says the Christian community should be seen by outsides as dignified and worthy of respect (v. 3-4). Paul wants his churches to be models of a dignified “quiet life.”  What is a peaceful (ἤρεμος) and quiet (ἡσύχιος) life? This sounds like Paul is telling the reader to go live in a cabin in the woods. This might sound a little too Amish for most Christians! But these two words are often found in lists of Greco-Roman virtues. Socrates was a model of calm in the face of peril for the Greeks (Theon, Progymnasmata, 8; Rhet. Graec., II, 111, 27 f.). For the Greeks, rulers were to be calm and have a quiet demeanor (Xenoph. Ag., 11, 2. 6. 20; Isoc. Or., 2, 23; see TDNT 6:646).

In a Greek papyri dated to the sixth century A.D. (P Oxy I. 1298) a father repudiates a betrothal because he wishes his daughter would “lead a peaceful and quiet life” (εἰρηνικὸν καὶ ἡσύχιον βίον διάξαι, MM, 281). While this letter is dated well after the writing of 1 Timothy, a similar use of the word appears in PsSol 12:5:  “May the Lord protect the quiet person who hates injustice; may the Lord guide the person who lives peacefully at home.” This is a Jewish text, probably reflecting the Pharisees, predating Paul by about 100 years. The writer parallels one who is quiet (ἡσύχιος) and lives peacefully (although the more common εἰρήνη is used).

Paul also describes this idea life as “godly and dignified in every way.” Both words would be idea virtues in the Greco-Roman world as well as the Christian or Jewish. The word “godly” is the common word εὐσέβεια, and was used by Diogenes Laertius (third century A.D.) for “the pious follow sacrificial custom and take care of temples” and was common used in the Aeneid to describe “pious” people (BDAG).

The word translated dignified (σεμνότης) is often translated with the Latin gravitas (a Latinism used in contemporary English for someone who has power). It is often associated with “denotes a man’s visible deportment.”  When Josephus retells the story of Saul and the witch of Endor, she recognizes the king because he carries himself like a king; in retelling the story of Pharaoh’s first encounter with Joseph, Philo comments that the king was impressed with Joseph’s dignity (Philo, Jos. 257, cf. 165).

This command is not unusual in the Pauline letters. “Live a quiet life” is similar to Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonica 4:1-12.  In that context, there were individuals who were not working to provide for their own needs.  The ultimate motivation for living in a quiet, dignified manner is that the outsiders will see this and “come to a knowledge of the truth.” As in 1 Thessalonians, Paul is concerned with the public reputation of Christians. Their lifestyle needs to be worthy of respect and attractive to outsiders. Christians were a strange superstition to the Greco-Roman world; as the church grew Christians came under increasing scrutiny for their practices and beliefs.

Since the quiet, dignified life was a virtue in the Greco-Roman world, any chaos or discord in the church would drive people away from the Gospel. With this “quiet dignified life” in mind, Paul then turns to a problem in the Ephesian churches which is disrupting that kind of life and potentially bringing shame on the church.  This problem appears to center on some women in the Ephesian churches who are not living a “quiet dignified life.”

The quiet life has unfortunately become a hipster clothing line that a way to live out one’s Christian life. In fact, it is hard to look at the typical evangelical as presented by the media as loving a quiet life that earns the respect of outsiders. Is the ideal of a quiet life for individuals only, or does Paul see this as a model for the whole church to follow? How can the contemporary church live out this ideal of a quiet life so that it can earn the respect of outsiders and (perhaps) attract them to the Gospel?

A Demonstration of God’s Mercy – 1 Timothy 1:12-20

Paul thanks God because God has enabled him to be faithful to the service to which he was appointed (v. 12). To “strengthen” someone is to give them the power of ability to do a particular task. This is the same verb (ἐνδυναμόω) Paul uses in Phil 4:13, and will use in 2 Tim 4:17. In both cases, Paul describes his weakness and inability to do the task God has given him, yet God gave him the strength to not only fulfill his commission, but to do so successfully.

Paul refers here to his commission to be a servant of God. The Greek noun διακονία can refer to any sort of job, assignment, or obligation. While we tend to think of “service” as those voluntary jobs we do for our church or school, the word can mean much more than that. In English we refer to someone who has been appointed to the role of an ambassador as being in the “foreign service.”

approved-stampPaul’s “appointment to service” is his commission to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). He was appointed to this particular role by God himself after he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. From the very beginning of his new life, Paul was told that he was a “chosen instrument” to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This commission was repeated in a vision given to Paul while he was worshiping in the Temple (a calling not unlike Isaiah). Paul’s point here is that despite being an unlikely candidate for this particular commission, God chose him and enabled him to fulfill this his calling to be the light tot he Gentiles.

Paul also recalls his former life before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (v. 13, 16). He says that he was a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.” In English, the word blasphemy has taken on the connotation of speaking against a particular religious view. In the context of the book of Acts, Paul did not “blaspheme” by speaking slanderously about God, rather, he unintentionally blasphemed by speaking slanderously about Jesus, denying he was the messiah and denying that God raised him from the dead.

But in Greek, the words translated as blasphemy (βλάσφημος, βλασφημία, and the verb βλασφημέω) are usually associate with slander, demeaning speech, or even disrespectful talk. This might be mocking a particular view, a sarcastic parody, etc., usually with the intention of shaming people who believe that sort of thing. In a public debate, it is easier to mock the opponent rather than engage their ideas. This might be personal attacks, or using a straw-man argument. It is far easier to create a simplistic characterization of a person’s ideas and attack that rather than seriously examining what they actually say!

This fits well with the third word in this line, Paul was insolent. The noun (ὑβριστής) is rare in the New Testament, only appearing here and Rom 1:30 (a vice list). The word is also rare in the LXX (10 times), but it does appear in Prov 6:17 as one of the seven things the Lord hates (“haughty eyes”). The word appears in secular descriptions of vice in secular Greek as well. Aristotle describes the wealthy as “insolent and arrogant” (Rhet. 1390b, 33); “insolence means to do and say things that bring shame to the victim” (Rhet. 2, 2, via BDAG).

Taken with the slander implied with the Greek idea of blasphemy, perhaps we can think of this sort of speech as the lowest form political discourse, the old-fashioned “mudslinging” and yellow-press tactics which most politicians say they will not use (unlike their communist, atheist, baby killing, rap music loving opponent).

Even though Paul had been opposed to the truth of the Gospel, God chose him in order to demonstrate his mercy (v. 13-14, 16). God is described as merciful and patient. These words describe the character of God in dealing with his people throughout the Hebrew Bible. God is “longsuffering” or patient with his people, waiting a long time before rendering a justly wrathful judgment. Paul says that since he “acted in ignorance” God extended mercy to him. In the Jewish Law there is a distinction between sins committed in ignorance and sins committed intentionally (with a “high hand.”)

Since Paul was the “worst of sinners,” God’s demonstration of patience and mercy to him was a demonstration of how great God’s mercy can be. If God was merciful to Paul, of all people, then how much more will he be merciful to you? This is perhaps an intentional contrast with the false teachers he will mention in verse 20. They are not ignorant, they are willfully departing from the truth of the Gospel, knowing full-well what they are doing. For this reason there is no mercy for them, rather they will be “handed over to Satan.”

Paul describes his experience of God’s grace as an overabundance of grace. This word (ὑπερπλεονάζω) only appears in the New Testament here and is rare outside the New Testament. Paul described himself as the most desperate of sinners, yet God has filled him up with his grace to overflowing!