Theme Week – 1 God, 1 Messiah: 1 Timothy 2
Old Testament Reading: Deuteronomy 13 & 14
Psalms Reading: Psalm 83
Paul had asked one of his best supporters, Timothy (Philippians 2:19-22), to stay at Ephesus and address false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3-7). In 6:20-21 Paul warns against “the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ – which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith.” (NASB). By writing of “knowledge” (gnosis in Greek) this way Paul suggests the presence of “gnostic” thought in Ephesus. “Gnosticism” covers a range of belief systems from the early centuries of the Christian era and grasping all of that history isn’t the point here, but I will mention some possible links to a gnostic group later.
The chapter begins with a support for prayer, highlighting its benefits for good order. The Jews had an exemption from sacrificing for the emperors and gave prayer for the emperors. The Romans accepted this compromise in part because they knew the strength of the Jewish conviction in their one God, and the risk of rebellion if they rejected it. For a time Christians were accepted under that compromise by the Romans, being seen as a category of Jewish believers. But Paul was not necessarily speaking of the compromise at all, but just of the benefits of prayer itself.
Paul goes on to state that he wants all to know the truth: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” (verses 5-6). The fact of Jesus being a mediator between God and humanity doesn’t come up often – the word for mediator only shows up six times in the New Testament, here, in Galatians 3, and in Hebrews 8, 9 and 12. Mediation is relevant for Jesus in his position as High Priest, one of the three tasks tied to being the Christ / Messiah, the anointed one. Once a year the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies (where the Ark of the Covenant was) and pray on behalf of the nation. This text in 1 Timothy addresses how Jesus is also the ransom, the sacrifice, which permitted the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies. The High Priest did not perform a sacrifice inside that room, he brought in blood from a sacrifice of a lamb that had taken place outside the room, and sprinkled it in the room. And so Jesus, our High Priest, is able to enter the true Holy of Holies in heaven and remain there – not one day but perpetually – based on having provided his own blood as the lamb (Revelation 5:9; Hebrews 10:11-25).
I also see Jesus as a proper mediator in how he understands the perspectives of both sides – he is the one sinless human being (1 Peter 2:22), better fit than anyone else to speak for God’s concerns (and, of course, God’s chosen representative as the Christ), but he is a human who suffered temptations as we do (Hebrews 4:15).
The later part of the chapter may explain why Paul was giving a brief explanation of the true faith – I would suggest he made his statement when he did in contrast to the teachings being presented by those he was having issues with in Ephesus. Sometimes people have argued about whether these statements should be taken as universal to all churches. I do not see them as universal, nor do I see them as restricting all women in Ephesus, because of inconsistencies this would create and because of an alternate explanation I perceive. But first the inconsistencies.
Some translations say “teach or have authority” in verse 12, but texts like 1 Corinthians 11 show that Paul accepted women as teachers (and he named various female co-workers in his letters, such as the well-known Priscilla, Phoebe, etc.). It seems better from the Greek to see this phrase as “teach with authority” which means it is not two issues but one, guided by whatever type of authority we are dealing with – because this is not the normal word for “authority” in the New Testament. The Greek word used in 1 Timothy 2:12 for “authority” only appears here in the Bible, telling us little, but its extrabiblical uses suggest it is more like a kind of stolen authority which Paul would not wish any Christian (male or female) to obtain. The reason that this passage links it to women will be made more clear shortly. The text says that Adam was created before Eve but does not state why this is significant – many have suggested this should relate to some greater authority for Adam due to being made first, an authority extending to men in general. But this is not discussed elsewhere in the Bible, and commonly greater responsibility results in greater punishment upon failure, not a continuation of such responsibility after failure. Next, the text says that Adam was not “deceived”, which has sometimes been thought to mean (in supposed context of Paul’s point) that Adam handled the truth about the tree better than Eve so men were to be able to handle the truth better than women. But both Adam and Eve sinned regarding the tree, and most texts about this Bible event refer to Adam, not Eve, as key to the punishment of humanity for sin (even if they are only using his name symbolically because he was the first human). And lastly, verse 15, in some readings, makes it sound like a woman’s salvation depends on bearing children rather than upon her relationship with Jesus. This seems to be a complete absurdity, particularly considering Paul’s stated support for Christians remaining unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:8).
Now to a proposed alternative, that there were female teachers in Ephesus advocating for a gnostic sect who had infiltrated the church. Such sects cover a range of ground, but they included those who claimed that the physical universe in which we live was created by accident as an off-shoot from the powers of a purely spiritual being too different from us to even interact with us or to create matter. They would propose that this far away being self-generated a lesser spirit (like a plant gives off fruit) which in turn generated a lesser spirit, and so on (some versions went through hundreds of levels, possibly mocked as the “endless genealogies” of 1 Timothy 1:4). Eventually the story would arrive at a being that was weak / foolish enough to produce matter rather than spirit, and that being created our universe. The result was the trapping of fragments of spirit in matter – souls stuck in bodies – which needed to be retrieved to re-merge with the higher beings. Thus one of the higher spirit beings gets sent to provide the necessary knowledge to these fragments (which are unaware of their own origins) for them to escape their reality.
It was popular in some gnostic circles to steal the writings of other groups, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, philosophy, etc., and rewrite it to present the beliefs of the gnostic group. The Genesis account of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was popular to twist, given the tree’s name. One particular group we know of presented that tree as a positive thing to eat from to gain understanding, and described the snake as a heroic spirit-being who came to convince Eve to eat from it. They described the God of the Old Testament as the creator of the physical universe who was blocking information about higher reality from the creation. Eve was presented as having been the original human (not Adam) and, since the snake supposedly told truth, she was also specifically not deceived. This type of switch in Eve’s origin story also plays into the fact with some gnostic groups of favoring priestess figures over priests.
You can see how what Paul says in verses 13 and 14 may be a repudiation of teachings by people in Ephesus who supported gnostics. Paul is asserting truth from Genesis. Adam was created first. Adam was not deceived by God about the tree, Eve was deceived by the serpent.
Verse 15 caps things off – among gnostics there were two views on sexuality. Some groups said that they should be celibate to avoid physical attachments, since their goal was to leave the world behind as spirits. Some groups said that since they were going to leave their bodies behind it didn’t matter what they did with them at all. But all gnostics agreed on one thing as being an unforgiveable sin – to have a child. They saw having a child as trapping a fragment of “soul” in flesh within the creation. I see verse 15 as offering reassurance to women who had been told they were not allowed to have children that doing so was fine. What actually mattered was continuing in faith, love, and sanctity with self-restraint.
I can’t demonstrate that the particular gnostic group I discussed was active in Ephesus – I can’t even demonstrate that the writing I was discussing about Genesis 3 had already been written at that point – but the details do seem to match together pretty well. If my proposed alternative were certainly incorrect, the inconsistencies I am concerned with would continue to concern me. And, of course, the ministry of the many women who worked alongside Paul would continue to be notable and compelling.
Lord, thank you for the opportunity to write these devotions. It has been difficult, but it has been useful to me as a demonstration that I can still be of use. I pray that I have not offended unnecessarily by anything I wrote, and that I have not mislead anyone or made an error in emphasis that would put them on the wrong course. I know that you are able to guide what people perceive in my words by your Spirit to take them where they actually need to go, and so now that my part is finished I entrust the next steps to you. Not that I did not rely on you to have been helping me along the way already. Please forgive my pride whenever I thought I was writing well, I was only writing about your words in the first place. Thank you for taking care of me, and for letting me know that you do. In the name of your son Jesus I pray these things, Amen.
- Do you make a practice of praying for worldly leaders? Do you pray only for your own leaders, or also for the leaders of other areas? Do you expect these prayers to matter?
- What do you think of 1 Timothy 2:5-6 as a possible stand-in for John 3:16? John 3:16 has a ring to it, but I wonder if these verses would be more likely to get people looking for the details they need. Sometimes the idea of “believing in him” sounds vague, without the context. Saying there is “testimony” might remind people to find out what the testimony said. Of course no one is meant to be a Christian without context. What do you think is your “key” verse or verses for your faith at the moment?
- Verse 8 says, after Paul’s statement about faith and truth, that he wants prayer everywhere “without wrath and dissension” – do you think this might be another reference to the unity of the believers being a testimony to the world? Does prayer with wrath and dissension sound appealing?
- The fact that Paul kept saying what he wanted from the believers may suggest that he wasn’t always getting it from them, or that he was warning them, or that he was aware how many other people would read his letters. It really isn’t clear. Which do you think is the most likely situation? How often do you read something Paul said to do and think about applying it directly to yourself? How often do you read something Paul said to do and object to the idea of applying it to yourself? How much of that is based on you thinking your circumstances are different now?