Philippians 2:19–24 – The Example of Timothy

Philippians 2:19-30 strikes some readers as a digression. After one of the most theologically dense passages in the New Testament, Paul spends two paragraphs in the middle of his letter to talk about travel plans with no obvious theological content. Since Paul usually mentions travel place at the end of the letter, some have suggested the letter originally ended at 3:1. This means the contentious section beginning in 3:2 is from another letter, and the “thank you note” in chapter four is a third letter. But this section of the letter is not unrelated to the great theological content of chapter 2:1-11; Paul is offering two additional examples of people who are serving humbly like Jesus (2:5-11) and Paul (2:17). Timothy and Epaphroditus are examples of “having the same mind” as Christ Jesus (2:1).

Timothy is the most well-known of Paul’s co-workers and co-author of the letter to the Philippians. Timothy first appears in Acts 16:1-5 as a companion of Paul. Timothy was a companion of Paul since the second missionary journey. He was from Lystra with a good reputation among the Christians in the area and Paul often sent him to churches as his personal representative.

HumilityPaul describes him in Philippians with very affectionate terms. Timothy is like a son to him, “no one like him,” and someone who has served alongside him for a very long time. In fact, Paul says Timothy “of the same mind” (ἰσόψυχος, 2:20), a word only appearing here in the New Testament. It has the sense of having things in common, but can mean “peer.” Paul calls Timothy his “colleague,” someone who has the same concerns and interests he does. It may be a coincidence, but the word Paul chose is a compound using ἴσος, the word he used to describe Jesus’ equality with God. Similar Jesus’ equality with God, so to Timothy has the same mind as Paul

Paul would like to return to Philippi soon, but since he remains under house arrest in Rome he will send Timothy as soon as he can. Why is Paul sending Timothy to Philippi? It is possible Paul’s imprisonment has raised questions among the Christians in Philippi. Perhaps they were concerned the advance of the Gospel was hindered by the long house arrest, as the opening prayer of the letter seems to imply (1:3-11). It is also possible they have had no news from Paul as a result of Epaphroditus’s illness. Since the church sent a gift to Paul with Epaphroditus, Paul may be concerned they think was ungrateful. Timothy’s presence would deal with any hard feelings about the use of the gift from Philippi.

Timothy is an example of genuine, humble service. First, Timothy is genuinely concerned about the church. A customer service representative will usually express concern, but just how concerned are they really? Timothy is as concerned with the needs of the church as Paul is, since they are “of one mind.” This is not a fake concern put on by someone seeking favor, but a real interest in the people at Philippi.

Second, Timothy seeks the interests of Jesus Christ rather than his own. Verse 21 says “they all seek their own interests,” but there is not subject in the immediate context. This is another hint of the self-serving minsters from 1:15-16, or possibly the opponents in chapter 3. Since Timothy seeks the interests of others (in this case, the Philippian church), Timothy is living a life worthy of the Gospel and therefore is quite counter to the culture of Rome.

Third, Timothy has been “proven worthy,” as the church is well aware. The noun (δοκιμή) refers to a test of character in order to determine how genuine that character really is (2 Cor 2:9, for example), in Rom 5:4 the word is simply translated “character.” Just gold or silver has to be tested in order to determine quality and value, so too a person’s character is shown as they pass through difficulties and trials. Think about how people’s personalities change when they pass through hard times. That is when the “true character” is revealed. Everyone knows an example of someone who appears to have been a “good Christian” (whatever that means), but when they are faced with difficult problems they begin to question or turn away from their faith.

Timothy is therefore an example of someone who is living their life “worthy of the gospel.”

What are the Qualifications for Elders? (1 Timothy 3:2-7)

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.  This is the most controversial in terms of modern application.  This 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.

ExcellentSober-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.”

The Noble Task of Eldering (1 Timothy 3:1)

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 could 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, and the pastor finished his sermon on the way to church. This family leaves “unimpressed” and never comes back, but they tell their friends that they tried “that church” and it wasn’t very good.

But Paul is not talking about “church shoppers” in this text, since that sort of thing did not exist in the first century. There are people in the congregation who are leaders in a local house church who have a bad reputation with the community. Maybe they have some shady business practices, or they are quick to bring lawsuits, or 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 bring that 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” (v. 1).

It is possible that this line betrays a problem in Paul’s churches in Ephesus. It appears that people were not wanting 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, the did not desire to become involved in leadership because it meant challenging these false teachers. A second possibility is that the role of overseer or elder was not considered to be a job people wanted to do – it was not considered a “noble task.” It is also possible that people who were capable and qualified did not see themselves as up to the task of leading the church, perhaps for a combination of the previous two points.

One serious problem reading this passage is that we hear words like elder and deacon and immediately think of our modern “office” of elder and deacon. This is not necessarily going to help 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.

1 Timothy 3:6-7 – The Nature of the False Teachers

In 1 Timothy 3:6-7 Paul begins to deal with the sorts of false teachers who are present in Ephesus.  These are the people Timothy was sent to deal with, so it is strange that Paul would say “have nothing to do with these people.”  Paul is not describing generic sinful people, rather these are people in the churches in Ephesus who are in a state of rebellion against the scripture and are behaving in ways that deny the power of godliness.  Compare this to Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29-30.

It appears that the false teachers in Ephesus target women. While Timothy is command to have nothing to do with these men, it appears that some woman are unnaturally attracted to them.  The women are described as weak-willed (sometimes, “weak and silly women”).  This is a moral weakness, not intellectual, they are predisposed to follow these leaders.   Maybe the false teachers are manipulating these women in order to gain power in the congregations.  What is more, they are”loaded down with sins.” The verb has the sense of “heaped up,” overloaded, etc.  “They are “swayed by evil desire” Paul describes these women as “always learning,” probably with the sense that they are always looking for new and unique ideas, but they never get around to the truth!

The impression here is of a group of (perhaps) wealthy patrons of local elders.  They are married (the false teachers sneak into the household), and are perhaps older, with more free time to play the patron for philosophers or teachers.  This did occur in the ancient world, perhaps these women are treating Christian teachers in the same way they might treat a Greco-Roman philosopher.

Paul uses an fairly obscure analogy for the false teachers in Ephesus, Jannes and Jambres (verses 8-9).  These names do not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but according to both Jewish and Christian tradition, these are the names of the two magicians who opposed Moses in Ex 7:11, 9:11.  Jannes is mentioned in the Damascus Document 5:18, both appear in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Ex 7:11.  Origen, Against Celsus 4.51 claims there is a (now lost) work describing the two men, although the spelling of the name varies.  Citing legendary bad examples in comparison to the opponents to the gospel is not unique to Paul.  Both 2 Peter and Jude list a series of bad examples in order to describe their own opponents. In this case the emphasis is likely on their  opposition to the truth rather than on their use of occult.

That the false teachers are opposing the truth is called folly, and like Jannes and Jambres, they will not be able to stand up to the truth in the end.  Is this name-calling?  Not really, it is an argument from analogy.  Since the false teachers in Ephesus are “foolish” in a biblical sense, they cannot overcome the truth.  Can this strategy be used to deal with the sorts of “false doctrine” we encounter today?

Church Leadership in The Pastoral Epistles

1 Timothy, Titus and 2 Timothy are normally called the “pastorals epistles.”  The standard view is that  Paul is writing to individuals who he has placed in a leadership position overseeing churches.   The three books were first called “pastoral epistles” by Paul Anton in 1726.  The description has become so common that nearly every commentator on the books has described the letters as “church manuals” or “advice to young pastors,” etc.  For example, John McArthur entitles Titus 1:5-9 as “the qualifications of a Pastor.”

The usual “situation” of the letters runs a bit like this.  Timothy has taken on additional responsibilities as a superintendent over several churches planted by Paul.  First Timothy is therefore letter is personal advice to Timothy on how to organize the church, as well as other ministry related issues. The second letter written to Timothy is to ask him to come to him in Rome, and to bring Mark with him, but the pastoral emphasis is still the main theme. In Titus, the content is very similar to First Timothy, elders are described, and various potential problems are addressed.

Gordon Fee, however, has called this description into question. As Fee notes, if these are “church manuals” they are not particularly effective ones.  We end up with far more questions about the church after reading them!  It seems hard to believe that such a wide variety of church structures and styles would all call upon these letters to validate their ecclesiology, if in fact Paul intended them to be read as “manuals for doing church.”

The key, for Fee, is to read seriously what Paul about his reason for writing the letters in  1:5 and 3:15, especially in the light of his final speech to the Elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35.

1 Timothy 1:3  As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer

1 Timothy 3:15 …if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

Acts 20:30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

These verses do not concern organizing the churches from scratch, as if Paul has done just a bit of church planting and Timothy is sent in to finish the job (like a modern evangelist with a followup team).  There seems to be a serious false teaching that has caused the church at Ephesus serious problems.  The problem is internal (Acts 20:30), people from the inside have begun to teach things opposed to Paul’s message.

This means that 1 Timothy and Titus are concerned with appointed good elders and deacons who will defend the faith and behave in an appropriate way.  In Titus, for example, Paul tells Titus to appoint qualified leaders, and in doing so, he is replacing the “unqualified leaders” who are destroying congregations.   That these elders are unqualified is more clear once we look at how they have been teaching and behaving, but it is clear from the qualification list in 1:5-9 that there is a serious ethical and moral problem with some of the elders in these churches.

How then do we make use of these “qualifications” lists?  How are elders and deacons”different” than members of the congregation?  Or, are they different at all?

Bibliography:

Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections On Church Order In The Pastoral  Epistles, With Further Reflection On The  Hermeneutics Of Ad Hoc Documents,” JETS 28 (1985):141-151.