PERHAPS IT WAS AN ATHLETIC ENTHUSIAST who deleted from our liturgical books the verse which introduces today’s passage from the First Epistle to Timothy. It reads as follows: “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Tm 4:8). This is the “faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance” to which St Paul refers in verse 9, the first one we hear today.
St Paul is here setting the priorities which a presbyter, such as Timothy, should embrace. Put your efforts in spiritual athletism rather than physical, as spiritual effort will build you up in the next life as well as in this one.
Timothy a “Young Elder”?
The Acts of the Apostles and some of the epistles of St Paul tell us a bit about Timothy. He was born in Asia Minor to a Greek father and a Jewish mother who had accepted Christ. Timothy was raised as a Christian by his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois and, as St Paul reminds him, “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation” (2 Tm 3:15).
As a young man Timothy became a helper to St Paul in his travels and eventually joined him in his missionary journeys. St Paul ultimately left him in Ephesus as the leader of his Christian community there. The epistles St Paul wrote to Timothy were sent to him in Ephesus.
St Paul mentions Timothy’s ordination twice in this correspondence in seemingly contradictory ways. In Second Timothy St Paul writes, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tm 1:6, 7).
In the previous epistle, however, Paul had written, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you” (1 Tm 4:14). In both texts St Paul speaks of the laying-on of hands, the most ancient term for what we call ordination. Was St Timothy ordained twice?
We know that in the first century Church a variety of terms was used to describe ecclesiastical orders. In some places the presbyters were the council assisting the bishop (overseer); in other places the terms bishop and presbyter (and others) were used interchangeably. There is no documentation to shed light on what the practice was in Ephesus at the time St Paul wrote this epistle. It is possible, therefore, that St Paul had ordained Timothy as a presbyter and that the presbyterate in Ephesus later ordained him as their bishop. It is also possible that there was one laying-on of hands by Paul assisted by the presbyterate.
When Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Church terms became standardized. This is why St John Chrysostom (+397) could observe, “He speaks not here of Presbyters, but of Bishops. For Presbyters cannot be supposed to have ordained a Bishop” (Homily on 1 Tim).
Timothy had been a co-worker of St Paul for some fifteen years before this epistle was written. Why, then, does St Paul tell Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth” (1 Tm 4:12)? He may have been referring to his place as head of the Christian community: Timothy was a “young bishop,” rather than a young person.
St Paul’s Advice
At first glance St Paul seems to be counseling Timothy on two levels: his personal spiritual life and his ministry. In reality, they are one, as any church leader, worker or even member ministers first of all through example. Thus in v. 12 Timothy is told to “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” The way you speak and how you live your life away from the church are always under scrutiny and surely impact the way your message is heard.
St Paul identifies three areas of life which should characterize Timothy’s relationship with his people: love, faithfulness and purity. Throughout most of Church history a bishop was considered “wedded” to his flock and was not expected to move from one eparchy to another. In many places the same was true for priests in parish churches. The virtues on which St Paul focuses here are essential for any such long-term bonds. They are the qualities required in any marriage, and point to the family-like quality of a worshipping community.
In the next verse St Paul identifies some activities particularly connected with the pastoral ministry expected of Timothy: “Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tm 4:13). How were these activities performed in the first-century Church?
Today we consider Reading to be a private activity for individuals. This has not always been so. Before the mass production of texts became possible in the fifteenth century public reading of important documents and religious texts was the only way most people had access to them. The reading of the Scriptures in the Liturgy is perhaps the last survival of what was a much more common practice.
The reading St Paul is discussing here, then, is the public reading of Scripture. In current Byzantine practice the entire New Testament (except for the Book of Revelation) is read publicly at the daily Divine Liturgy each year. During the Great Fast the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Genesis and Proverbs are read at the daily offices.
The Exhortation in our English translation of the Scripture is a rendering of the Greek word paraklesei. We find the same word in the term for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete (the Consoler or Comforter), and the Service of Paraklisis (Consolation) with which we may be familiar. Here it refers to the bishop’s duty to support believers in their struggles to live the Christian life, including those who have fallen.
The third-century Syrian text, the Teaching of the Apostles, holds up Christ’s way of exhorting His hearers as the model for the bishop to follow: “For as a wise and compassionate physician He was healing all, and especially those who were gone astray in their sins; for ‘those who are whole have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’ (Mt 9.12). You, O bishop, have become the physician of the Church as well: do not therefore withhold the cure whereby you may heal those who are sick with sins, but by all means cure and heal, and restore them sound to the Church” (2.20).
The third activity St Paul mentions here is Teaching (in Greek, didaskaleia), meaning specifically instruction in the true doctrine of the Gospel in an age of competing teachers and sects. In 2 Tm 4:15 St Paul describes this activity as “rightly handling the word of truth,” a phrase which has been incorporated into our Divine Liturgy.
One early witness to the importance of Bible teaching is the early third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, describing the Roman practice of the day. “The faithful, as soon as they have awakened and gotten up, before they undertake any tasks, shall wash their hands and then pray to God and then hasten to their work. If there is any instruction in the Word of God that day, everyone ought to attend willingly, recollecting that he will hear God speaking through the teacher… any godly man ought to count it a great loss if he does not attend the place of instruction, especially if he can read.”
(32 Pentecost, 15 St Luke)