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1 Timothy 1:12-17

This week begins three weeks in 1 Timothy, with another 4 weeks in 2 Timothy, for the second lectionary reading. This dip into the Pastoral literature of the New Testament presents potential opportunities and pitfalls for the lectionary preacher. One the one hand, the Pastoral Letters in general, and 1 and 2 Timothy in particular, offer the preacher texts that appear more interested in ordering the life of the Church community than other epistolary New Testament literature. It is from the Pastoral Letters that the biblical foundation for the clerical offices of “bishop,” “deacon,” and “presbyter” is taken. This privileged perspective, perhaps of a “later” Pauline voice reflecting on a more developed early church life, also comes with difficulty—with texts that have been used for a wide range of oppressions in the history of the Church: slavery, patriarchy, and despotism. As such, these texts—especially if the very real questions concerning authorship[1] are allowed to influence exegesis—hold the potential pitfall of entrapping preachers in hyperbolic pronouncements upon Protestant-Catholic dividing lines concerning the organizing of Church life, without noticing the texts’ continued proclamation of the gospel.

This week’s text is just one such proclamation of the gospel. At first blush, it may seem to be a text ready-made for a classic evangelistic sermon about the power of Christ to save unbelievers. And it certainly does speak to that reality. However, the evangelical preacher should take care not to run ahead of the text and risk missing the powerful tensions that remain—tensions that in fact deepen the profundity of Christ’s saving work.

These verses (1:12-17) are noteworthy for their slight difference from the usual structure of Paul’s letters. In the place of his usual thanksgiving for those to whom he writes, Paul here gives thanks for what Christ Jesus as done in, for, and to Paul himself. It is this character of thanksgiving that must be held throughout the reading of the passage. Paul’s subsequent testimony cannot be divorced from his persistent gratitude for the mercy of Christ. This is demonstrated especially in the central verse of the passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” (1:15, emphasis mine) While it might be possible to quarantine Paul’s confession of sin to the past when looking at the tense of the verbs in v13-14, such a move is not possible when reading v15. The proclamation of the gospel, for Paul, cannot be separated from a confession of sinfulness—a present confession. Thanksgiving and confession are the proper tone of evangelistic proclamation; there can be no other.

The Pastoral Letters also serve to reinforce one of the poorer instincts of many American evangelicals: an individual reading of scripture. Due to the absence of a 2nd-person-plural pronoun in English, the necessarily communal nature of much epistolary teaching is missed. This tendency—to imagine that scripture is written as a private address to individuals rather than a communal discipline provided to communities, to churches—is exacerbated by the Pastoral Letters, which are in fact addressed to individual persons. However, these texts remain God’s address to the Church, and the faithful exegete is assisted (at least in 1 Timothy) by Paul’s closing benediction: “Grace be with you.” (6:21b) In the Greek text, the “you” of that final word is unavoidably plural. This demands that interpreters of the text must draw back into the entirety of the letter the plural force of Paul’s final address. Paul’s words are not just for Timothy, nor just for you or me, as individuals. Paul’s words—God’s words, according to our confessions of scripture’s inspiration—are for the Church.

These few observations come together forcefully. They allow us—as the Church—to be located—by the text—in the place of Paul, giving thanks to Christ Jesus for the mercy that has taken us, the foremost of sinners, and made us faithful and appointed us to his service. Today especially, in a world that has a plurality of reasons to distrust a Church that seeks to stand on a moral high ground and proclaim judgment rather than mercy, this location—this tone—is essential. We as the Church, are a means by which Jesus Christ “might display the utmost patience, making [us] an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life,” (16). But we are this means only in the midst of our confession—we the chief of sinners are!

Finally, Paul’s thanksgiving and confession, Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, find their end—their telos—in doxology. So must ours. “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (17).

[1] For an excellent, and brief, discussion of authorship for 1 and 2 Timothy and Philemon, see the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, vol. 10.

[2]Some commentators have remarked on the strong monotheistic emphasis of this doxological climax. However, it’s placement, close alongside the extraordinary prayers of thanksgiving and confessions of salvation from the hand of the messianic “Jesus Christ” can—and I think ought to—be read as an early gesture towards Trinitarian confession.