1 Timothy 3
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.

(1) This is a true saying.—There is no reason why the rendering of this formula adopted in 1Timothy 1:15, “faithful is this saying,” should be altered here. The “faithful saying” here refers to the wish for high and arduous work in the Church of Christ, and declares such a wish to be a noble one; for the office in question was a beautiful one, and honourable, and in those days meant stern and ceaseless work, grave and constant danger. It was no doubt one of the well-known sayings among the brethren of the first days, and not improbably, with the other “faithful sayings” of this group of Epistles, formed a part of their liturgy, and was woven into some of their special prayers offered in public. Perhaps this “faithful saying” was a portion of a prayer offered not unfrequently in the public assembly, asking that volunteers might be moved by the Holy Ghost to present themselves for the then dangerous office of ordained ministers of the Word.

“Well might a man desire the office of chief pastor; it was indeed a good work;” but, in the first place, such a dignity could only be held by one possessing many qualities, then and there enumerated.

If a man desire the office of a bishop.—More accurately rendered, If a man seeketh. In the . . Pastoral Epistles the Greek words rendered “bishop” and “presbyter” or elder (episcopos, presbuteros), are applied indifferently to the same person, for up to this period (A.D. 65-6) no necessity had arisen in the constitution of the Church for the appointment of a special order of superintending presbyters. The numbers of the members of the brotherhood, though every year showing a vast increase, were still, comparatively speaking, small. St. Peter, St. Paul, St. James and St. John, and certainly the majority of the apostolic college, were still living; while, till A.D. 70, the Jerusalem congregation still acted as the central authority of the Church, and grave questions continued to be referred to the Fathers resident there.

Early in the second century, however, there is not a shadow of doubt that the episcopal office, as we understand it, was widely established. During the last thirty years, then, of the first century, this great change in Church organisation must have been effected—that is, during the life-time of St. John. How this was brought about is admirably stated by Professor Rothe, of Heidelberg, as quoted by Canon Lightfoot in his dissertation on the Christian ministry (Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians), who, without accepting all the details suggested, still in the main agrees with the famous Heidelberg professor in his theory respecting the very early establishment of episcopacy in the Catholic Church. After painting the distractions and growing dissensions of the Church, occasioned by the jealousies between the Jewish and Gentile brethren, and the menacing apparition of the Gnostic heresy, Rothe states how, in the face of this great emergency, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. James were carried away by death almost at the same time; while, with the overthrow of Jerusalem very shortly after, the visible centre of the Church was removed, the keystone of the fabric was withdrawn, and the whole edifice was threatened with ruin. There was a crying need for some organisation which should cement together the diverse elements of Christian society, and preserve it from disintegration. Out of this need the Catholic Church in its episcopal character arose. From notices in Eusebius, Irenæus, and Clement of Rome, Rothe (quoted by Lightfoot) concludes “that, immediately after the fall of Jerusalem, a council of the surviving Apostles and first teachers of the gospel was held to deliberate on the crisis, and to frame measures for the well-being of the Church. The centre of the system thus organised was episcopacy, which at once secured the compact and harmonious working of each individual congregation, and, as the link of communication between the separate brotherhoods, formed the whole into one undivided Catholic Church. Recommended by this high authority, the new constitution was immediately and generally adopted.”

He desireth a good work.—The office of a presbyter of the Church in the days of St. Paul was a difficult and dangerous post. It involved much labour; it was full of risk; it meant a hard and severe life; yet, from the Christian’s standpoint, it was a work, if faithfully performed, of all toils the most beautiful, the most honourable, the most noble. “Negotium non otium” comments Bengel, in his usual pithy, untranslatable way.

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
(2) A bishop then must be blameless.—Now follow the various social and moral characteristics of the appointed and recognised officers of the Christian Church—the presbyters or bishops, and the junior ministers, the deacons. The second chapter had treated of the duties of congregations collectively in the matter of public prayer; the third chapter speaks of the special character and qualities necessary for the rulers of these congregations. These “elders” must, in the first place, be men whose character is unimpeachable—men who stand high in public estimation, known for their pure life and spotless integrity. Not only must believers reverence the character of the superintending and ruling elders of their community, but even those outside the brotherhood of Christ must respect the life and conversation of these prominent and conspicuous members of a society which, from the nature of things, would be sure to provoke distrust and jealousy.

The husband of one wife.—The general opinion of the most ancient writers—the decisions of Church councils when the question seems to have been placed before them—the custom of the great Greek Church, which, while permitting a single nuptial, still regarded the repetition of the marriage relation as a disqualification for the higher grade of the episcopate—tell us in general terms that the opinion of the Church from the earliest times interprets this saying of St. Paul as a declaration against second marriages in the case of those seeking the office of presbyter or deacon. The Greek Church evidently accepts this interpretation, though it relaxes the rule in the case of the inferior orders.

There seems, however, good reason for doubting the accuracy of this popular interpretation, which appears, by thus casting a reproach upon second marriages, to urge a spirit of asceticism on all Christian society, very foreign to St. Paul’s usual teaching, which was content with gently inculcating a higher and a purer life as alone in accordance with the mind of his pitiful and loving Master. It was only by slow degrees that he hoped to raise the tone of society and public opinion in this world.

Inspired Christian teaching was careful not to distract the everyday life of men and women by insisting on sudden and violent changes. The behaviour of the great Christian teachers in the matter of that terrible and universal practice of slavery should be especially noted.

When we ask, What then did St. Paul mean by these words? we must picture to ourselves the state of society in the empire at the time when the Apostle wrote to Timothy. An inundation of Eastern luxury and Eastern morals had submerged all the old Roman habits of austere simplicity. The long civil war and the subsequent license of the empire had degraded the character of the people. The period when St. Paul wrote was especially marked by an extreme depravity. A great and general indisposition towards marriage at all, and the orderly restraints of home and family life, had become so marked a feature in Roman society, that we find Augustus positively enacting laws against celibacy. Another cause which helped to undermine the stability of home life and those family ties which ought to be deemed so sacred, was the ease and frequency of divorce, which Seneca, who may be considered almost as the contemporary of St. Paul, alludes to as incidents no longer looked upon as shameful in Rome. He even, in his indignation at the laxity of the morals of his day, cites cases of women who reckoned their years rather by their husbands than by the consuls. Martial writes of a woman who had arrived at her tenth husband. Juvenal speaks of one who, in five years, had had eight husbands. Among the Jews we know polygamy was then prevalent. St. Paul, fully conscious of this low and debased moral tone which then pervaded all society in the empire, in these few words condemned all illicit relations between the sexes, and directed that in choosing persons to fill holy offices in the congregations of Christians, those should be selected who had married and remained faithful to the wife of their choice, whose life and practice would thus serve as an example to the flock, and to whose homes men might point as the pattern which Jesus loved, while the heathen world around them would see that the hated and despised Christians not only loved and honoured, but lived that pure home life their own great moralists pressed so earnestly upon them, but in vain. This direction, which requires that those to be selected to fill holy offices should be known for their purity in their family relations, of course does not exclude—should any such offer themselves—those men who, while contracting no marriage ties, still were known to lead upright, moral lives.

Vigilant.—The Greek word here is more accurately rendered sober. The presbyter or elder should be soberminded, self-restrained, temperate (not merely in wine, but in all things).

Sober.—Better rendered, discreet.

Of good behaviour.—Rather, orderly. This word refers to outward conduct, to behaviour in public.

The Christian office-bearer must not only be wise and self-restrained in himself, but his outward bearing must in all respects correspond to his inner life.

Given to hospitality.—In the early days of Christianity, when Christians travelling from one place to another, were in the habit, when it was possible, of resorting to the houses of their brethren in the faith, to avoid consorting with idolaters in the public inns. It was of no slight importance that the presiding elders in a congregation should be men who loved to entertain strangers and others, from whom nothing could be expected in return.

Apt to teach.—The elder should possess something more than a willingness, or glad readiness, to teach the less instructed the mysteries of the faith. He ought also to have the far rarer qualification of a power to impart knowledge to others. Zeal is not by any means the only, or even the principal, qualification to be sought for in a minister of the Word.

Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
(3) Not given to wine.—Drunkenness is scarcely alluded to here. It is rather a warning against choosing for the sacred office one given to frequenting noisy banquets, where wild and imprudent words are often spoken.

No striker.—Probably something more than merely brawling and fighting may here be included. Not only must the pattern minister of the Lord never smite his brother believer, but he must also never wound his soul with cutting, unkind words.

Not greedy of filthy lucre.—The Greek word thus translated does not occur in the older MSS. in this place.

But patient.—God’s minister must be considerate toward the prejudices of others, forbearing, and gentle.

Not a brawler.—Better rendered, not contentious. He must not be easily vexed; but must exercise a steady command over his temper, avoiding all wordy strife.

Not covetous.—Literally, not a lover of money. The disinterested minister, who cares nothing for money for money’s sake, would ever stand out in all societies a strangely attractive figure.

One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;
(4) One that ruleth well his own house.—Paul here again turns to the vein of thought first struck in 1Timothy 3:2 : The life of the officer in the Church of God must be a pattern life for those without, as well as for those within the Church’s fold, to copy and imitate. He must be pre-eminent in nobility of life and aims; but the life and the aims must belong to ordinary every day life. His high standard must be no inimitable one; the example must be one that all honest men may follow and copy, if they will. So, first of all (1Timothy 3:2), the Apostle places among the qualities necessary for a governing elder in the Church, the pure home life of the husband; then, after enumerating other points to be sought for in the character of one chosen to rule in the congregation, Paul comes back to this central idea, the home life of the Church official; that home life must present the spectacle of a well-ordered household. This will be at least a good test of a man’s fitness to rule the large family gathered together in the form of a congregation, if his own home is gently yet firmly ruled; the wife, a pattern Christian lady; the children growing up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Having his children in subjection with all gravity.—The Greek word rendered “gravity” occurs in 1Timothy 2:2, where it is translated in the authorised version, not very happily, by “honesty.” The word employed in the original Greek denotes that decorum, that propriety of demeanour, which belongs especially to the pure and chaste, and seems to urge that a peculiar reverence and an especial decorum shall be aimed at in all relations with the young. Maxima debetur pueris reverentia. The child life in the families of these ministers of Christ’s religion must, too, be an example to countless other homes.

(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)
(5) For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?—The well-ordered household, the decent, modest behaviour, the reverent, affectionate relations between parents and children, between the master and the dependents—these things are to be the test of a man’s fitness for holding high office in the public community of believers, for, as Theodoret observes, if a man cannot rule decorously a small community (such as a family), how shall he be judged a fit person to be entrusted with administration in a broader sphere—with duties which have to do with divine things?

Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
(6) Not a novice.—In the Church of Ephesus, which, when Paul wrote these charges to Timothy, had been established some years, the chief pastor would have for the church office an ample choice of disciples of some considerable standing and experience. The word “novice” here refers rather to want of experience and standing in the Christian brotherhood than to “youth.” Timothy himself, to whom St. Paul was writing, and whom the Apostle had placed over this church, was at the time, comparatively speaking, still a man young in years, although old in trials and in Christian experiences.

Lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.—The Greek word rendered here “being lifted up,” would be more happily Englished by being clouded or deluded. It marks the pride or vanity engendered by the finding himself in a position of authority for which no previous training and experience had fitted him. Such a “novice” would be in imminent danger of falling into the judgment passed by God upon the devil, whose fall was owing to the same blinding effect of pride.

Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
(7) Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without.—The man to be chosen as a responsible office-bearer in the Church, should be one possessing a stainless reputation for integrity and honour with the world outside the Church’s pale; he should be one regarded by the world at large as having led a self-restrained, decorous life—a life free from those disorders and licentious practices which worldly men, even while themselves indulging in them, are the first to condemn in others.

Lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.—For such a one, bringing with him into the new society his unhappy reputation, earned in the old thoughtless days—if placed in the new society in a prominent position of authority—would draw down upon himself and the brotherhood over whom he presided many a reproach, many a sneer. Those who once knew him among other associations living a very different life, would be only too ready to attack the blameless character of the congregation, through the stained and scarred reputation of their minister. The temptation to fall away and deny his Lord in such a case, would be overwhelming. The man might be in earnest, might be wishful to lead a new and better life, but the risk that one with such connections, with such memories of old days, would of necessity run, must be very great. Weakened and disheartened, such a presbyter would be likely to fall an easy prey into some snare skilfully laid by the Enemy, and, by his fall, cause a terrible and damaging injury to the Church of Christ. For these weighty reasons St. Paul charged Timothy to be very watchful when he chose his presiding elders, to elect only those who, in the dissolute society of Ephesus, had known how, even in old days, to preserve their good name stainless, their character unscarred.

The snare of the devil.—The teaching here of St. Paul respecting the Evil One is deserving of a special comment. What he says in 1Timothy 3:6-7 is simply introduced as part of the main argument, which relates exclusively to the care to be exercised in the selection of fit persons for the sacred offices in the congregations. It is evidently not introduced as a special teaching on this mysterious subject. No disputings on this point as yet had been originated at this early period in Christian history. It lays down, however, certain broad principles which must have been the ground-work of St. Paul’s belief in this now disputed question; and receiving as we do St. Paul’s words in this and in his other epistles as an authoritative declaration of the mind and will of the Holy Spirit, it seems that these broad principles should have all weight whenever the doctrine respecting the Spirit of Evil is discussed. The lines hero sketched are as follows: (1) The personality of the Evil One is distinctly affirmed. (2; This unhappy being has fallen and has been condemned, and is now able to lay snares for and to tempt men. (3) An overweening pride seems to have been the cause which led to this once mighty one’s fall. (4) All idea of dualism—the old Persian belief adopted in the Manichsean heresy, and in so many other false creeds, that of two principles eternally opposed to one another—presiding respectively over the realms of light and darkness—is distinctly here repudiated by Paul, who in the course of his argument casually introduces the Evil One—the Enemy of man, as one who at some remote period rebelled, was crushed, and condemned, but to whom, in the supreme Providence of God, some terrible power over man was left.

Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;
(8) Likewise must the deacons.—We possess scattered and at the same time casual notices of this lower order of deacons dating from the very first days of the faith. The order clearly sprang out of the needs of the rapidly increasing church. Some two years after the Ascension (A.D. 34-35) the seven deacons were appointed to assist the Apostles as almoners of the brethren; as the Church’s life developed, the functions of these primitive subordinate ecclesiastical officers were enlarged. The history of the career of Stephen and Philip supply ample evidence of this. Out of his first apostolic appointment in the year 34-35, no doubt, was developed that great inferior order in the Church, respecting which these definite rules and authoritative regulations were laid down by the Apostle Paul in his instructions to Timothy in the matter of church government and order. These primitive deacons were evidently assistants to and probably in many cases supplied the place of the presbyters. The great similarity of the directions of St. Paul respecting the qualifications to be looked for in both, implies this; still their original employment as administrators of the Church’s funds and distribution of her alms remained to them. We can trace the existence of the order through and beyond the Apostle’s time:—


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Original foundation of order by the Apostles at Jerusalem. Acts 4:1-6.


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1Corinthians 12:28.


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Romans 12:7.


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Philippians 1:1.


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1Timothy 3:8; 1Timothy 3:13.

Asia Minor

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1Peter 4:11.

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Justin Martyr. Apology, i. 65, “Those with us who are called deacons,” and Apology, i. 67.

Corinth.—Deacons apparently alluded to under ἀντιλήψεις—“helps” (1Corinthians 12:28). See also 1Timothy 3:5 of same chapter: διαιρέσεις διακονιῶν.

Rome.— είτε διακονίαν, ἐν, τῆ διακονία. Reference lost in English translation, “or ministry, (let us wait) on our ministering” (Romans 12:7).

Asia Minor.—εί τις διακονεῖ. Reference lost in English translation, “if any man minister” (1Peter 4:11).

Thus in the first half of the second century we find the order regularly and apparently universally established, constituting an acknowledged part of the Christian system of ecclesiastical government. The scattered notices of the diaconate in the New Testament, dating almost from the Ascension—over a period exceeding thirty years—show us how, out of the needs of the Church, arose this subordinate order, which was rapidly developed as the Catholic Church increased. The differences between the deacon of the Pastoral Epistles, and the deacon of the writings of Justin Martyr, are exactly what we should expect would result from the seventy years of gradual but progressive organisation under men like St. John and his disciples and the immediate successors of the Apostles.

Be grave.—St. Paul again repeats the need for this feature of character being found in the lower order of ecclesiastical officers. The reverent decorum, the quiet gravity, which never interferes with the innocent, childlike happiness (see Note on 1Timothy 3:4), is especially to be looked for in a deacon, who ought to show an example of every-day Christian life.

Not doubletongued.—Bengel well paraphrases it, ad alios alia loquentes. The deacon would have in his duties connected with the administration of the Church’s alms, and also in his more directly spiritual work, much opportunity of meeting with and talking to the various families of the flock of his Master. He must be watchful, in these visits, of his words, not suiting them to the occasion, and then unsaying in one house what he had affirmed in another. Such a grave fault—not an uncommon one—would, in the long run, deeply injure his influence abroad, and would inflict a deadly wound on his own spiritual life.

Not given to much wine.—The professed minister—the advocate for the cause of the poor and needy—must show an example of the strictest sobriety, must be pointed at as one caring little for the pleasures of the table. How well and nobly the young lieutenant of St. Paul aimed at showing in himself a self-denying example to the flock, we see from 1Timothy 5:23, when the old master deemed it requisite to warn his earnest, brave disciple from an asceticism which was positively weakening his power of work and endurance.

Not greedy of filthy lucre.—Those entrusted with the care of the Church’s alms surely must be especially careful of their reputation in the matter of covetousness—among the “chosen” of Timothy there must be no Judas.

Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
(9) Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.—The thought again comes to the surface—mere orthodoxy without the Christ-life was an empty, useless characteristic feature in any one; but here the man of God, writing to his dear son these solemn warnings respecting fit and proper persons to be chosen for their Master’s work, has besides in these words another end in view. He had been dwelling with great earnestness on the outward characteristics which a deacon of the Church should possess—the high and stainless name—the generous respect which his old way of living had won for him among unbelievers as well as with believers; but, in addition to these things, it was absolutely necessary for one occupying such a post to know something of the deeper spiritual life—he must hold the mystery of the faith. Now what does St. Paul mean by the mystery? He speaks of it as “a treasure” which must be held in the casket of a pure conscience. This mystery was what was sometimes hidden, but which was now revealed by the advent of St. Paul’s Master, and comprehended the truths of the redemption, the atonement, and mighty cleansing powers of the precious blood of Christ. These—the master truths of Christianity—must the appointed teacher firmly grasp; and the true deacon, whose office it was rather to administer than to preach to the people, must also be especially careful to show that he lived the life he professed to teach; or, in St. Paul’s own simile, must preserve the casket in which the precious mystery was shrined, holy and undefiled before men—he must hold the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.

And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.
(10) And let these also first be proved.—No formal investigation, either in public before the congregation, or in private before Timothy and his fellow presbyters, is here referred to. What is most probably the meaning of the word is—the deacon should for a time perform many of the various duties on probation, to test his fitness before he was formally set apart for the holy office. So much of the work belonging to these officials of the early Church necessarily partook of a partially secular character, that such a trial of their fitness could well be made.

Then let them use the office of a deacon.—Better rendered, let them serve as deacons, if, after the trial, inquiry, and period of probation, they be found blameless.

Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.
(11) Even so must their wives . . .—The position of this solitary charge, respecting deacons’ wives, in the midst of regulations concerning “deacons,” is, of itself, almost decisive against the translation of the English version, adopted also by Luther and many others. The question naturally occurs—why are deacon’s wives especially referred to, while nothing has been said respecting the wives of presbyters? Then, again, why should the choice of Timothy in the matter of his selection of a deacon be hampered with any special requirements in the wife of the candidate for the holy office? The literal translation of the Greek words would be, Women in like manner must, &c. These women, St. Chrysostom and most of the ancient expositors affirm, were deaconesses.

It is certain that there were women holding a kind of official position as deaconesses in the early Church; nor is it probable that these deaconesses were, as a class, confined to the restriction of age referred to in the direction respecting a band of widows devoted to works of mercy (1Timothy 5:9-10). These widows seemed to have been in the first instance a class or order apart from the ordinary deaconesses.

Phebe of Cenchrea (Romans 16:1), Euodias, and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2), probably the organisation alluded to (Acts 9:36-41) as existing at Joppa, of which Dorcas was the chief, may be cited as instances from the New Testament of the employment of these women-servants of the Church. In the next century the Proconsul Pliny, in his famous letter to the Emperor Trajan, distinctly alludes to these Christian deaconesses, in the words, “ancillæ quæ ministræ dicebantur.” “In the Western Church,” says Professor Reynolds, “the order did not cease to exist until the fifth century, and was continued in the Greek Church till the twelfth. The deaconess vanished into the cloister until partially revived in comparatively modern times.”

Be grave.—The same word is used as in the case of the deacons. These deaconesses, too, must, with their modest behaviour, with their sweet, decorous gravity, as it has been well said, “inspire reverence having the halo of purity and sanctity about them.”

Not slanderers.—A woman’s most ready weapon is ever her tongue. She is, with all her noble, generous qualities, often quick-tempered, passionate, impulsive, jealous, and this weapon, always ready for attack or defence, is too often unsheathed. The professed servant of the Lord must show a high example to her sisters in self-control.

Sober.—Should be abstemious, even self-denying in the pleasures of the table.

Faithful in all things.—These deaconesses, from their position, would become the depositaries of many a household secret; to those confiding in them in moments of trouble they must be true; scrupulously honest also in their distribution of alms; faithful, too, in the holy instruction they would be often called on to give in the course of their ministrations.

Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.
(12) Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife.—Here the exact same qualification is to be sought for as in the higher grade of presbyter. The same orderly and decorous household is required now in the case of the deacon, as was to be looked for as qualification for the presiding elder. St. Paul knew well that in the wise yet tender father, Timothy would find the firm yet generous distributor of the Church’s alms, the loving and devoted friend of the poor sick.

For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
(13) For they that have used the office of a deacon well.—Better rendered, for they that have served well as deacons. It was with good reason that the Apostle laid great stress on the many and varied qualifications necessary for one undertaking the duties of a deacon of the Church—for very great indeed was the reward reserved for the true, loyal deacon when his work was over and done (and if for the man who had performed well his work in the lower office, à fortiori for the one who should faithfully fulfil the yet higher duties of an elder or overseer in the Church).

Purchase to themselves a good degree.—Some scholars have suggested as a better rendering, “are acquiring (or gaining) to themselves a good standing. The old translation perhaps is best. Alford writes strikingly on the change of tense: “They that have used are acquiring or purchasing.” The Apostle having begun by placing himself at the great day of retribution, now shifts the scene and deals with their present conduct. “Those who shall then be found to have served well, &c. . . . are now, &c.”

The “good degree” they are now purchasing by earnest, patient work may refer to advancement to the higher ministries of the Church, but, more probably, has reference to their future position in the blessed life to come. This is one of the passages not unfrequent in St. Paul’s Epistles, where degrees of glory among the redeemed are clearly spoken of. The plain words of St. Paul and his Master teach the people of God that although the great act of redemption alone belongs to Christ, that through His merits only men obtain salvation, still His own, will in a great measure determine, by their works and days on earth, the position they will occupy in His kingdom.

And great boldness.—The true and faithful deacons not only will in the life to come win the great reward, but here the result of their loyal, earnest service would be, that before men they would do their work with serene, fearless confidence, and would at the same time be encouraged to approach that heavenly Father at all times with the loving trustfulness of children.

In the faith which is in Christ Jesus.—Faith was the foundation of the “great boldness,” and the faith rested on Jesus Christ.

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly:
(14) These things write I unto thee.—“These things” probably referred only to the directions respecting the special qualification to be sought for in candidates for the office of the overseers (presbyters) and deacons.

Hoping to come unto thee shortly.—The participle here has a concessive form, “though I hope,” &c. “I write these special urgent directions to you, though my hope is that I shall be with you sooner than such detailed instructions presuppose.”

But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.
(15) But if I tarry long.—St. Paul felt that dangers were pressing closer and closer—that the hoped-for visit to his loved church at Ephesus might not, probably never would be, accomplished; so these foregoing solemn directions respecting the choice of colleagues in the ministry had been written to Timothy, that, in the event of St. Paul never coming to him again, men (especially the ministers of God) should know how to conduct themselves in the congregation.

That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself.—The words refer here not to Timothy alone, but rather to Timothy and his colleagues in their church work, concerning whom such particular directions had just been given, and should be rendered, how men ought to behave themselves.

In the house of God.—The image is from the Old Testament, where “the house of God” denotes, in the first place, the Temple of Jerusalem, and, in the second, the covenant-people. It is here used for the congregation of believers among whom God dwells—the true and enduring Church of living souls. Of this great spiritual temple, the corner-stone of which is Christ, the Jerusalem house on Mount Zion, with its marvellous work and its gorgeous and elaborate symbolism, was the poor, perishable, hand-wrought model.

Which is the church of the living God.—The house of God is here plainly defined to be the “Church” (or, congregation) “of the living God,” who was working in its midst actively and personally, in strong contrast to that well-known graven image of the Diana of Ephesus, throned in that fair temple which glittered in its white and lifeless beauty over the roofs of the city where Timothy’s charge lay.

The pillar and ground of the truth.—The imagery is here changed, and the “house of God” which the Apostle had just defined to be the Church, or congregation, belonging to the living God, and in the midst of which He was pleased to dwell, is now defined to be “the pillar and ground” (or, basis) “of the truth.” In the first picture, the Church is painted by St. Paul as a vast congregation, with the living God dwelling in its midst: in the second, the same Church is painted as a massive pillar, holding up and displaying before men and angels the truth—the saving truth of the gospel. In the first picture, the thought of a great company gathered together for God to dwell among is prominent: in the second, the thought of the great redemption-truth alone comes to the front, and the Church of God is no longer viewed as a company of separate individuals, but as one massive foundation-pillar, supporting and displaying the glories of redemption.

This peculiar aspect of the Church, ”the support and pillar of the truth,” was dwelt upon probably by the Apostle as “defining—with indirect allusion to nascent and developing heresies—the true note, office, and vocation of the Church. . . . Were there no Church, there would be no witness, no guardian of archives, no basis, nothing whereon acknowledged truth could rest” (Ellicott).

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
(16) And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness.—“And is not simply copulative, but heightens the force of the predication, Yes, confessedly great is the mystery” (Ellicott)—for the glorious truth which the Church of God pillar-like upholds, is none other than that stupendous mystery, in other ages not made known, but then revealed—the mystery of Christ, in all His loving manifestations and glorious triumph. Yes, confessedly great—so great that the massive grandeur of the pillar is only in proportion to the truth it supports.

God was manifest in the flesh.—Here, in the most ancient authorities, the word “God” does not occur. We must, then, literally translate the Greek of the most famous and trustworthy MSS. as follows: He who was manifested in the flesh. In the later MSS., and in the great majority of the fathers who cite the passage, we certainly find Theos (“God”), as in the Received text. The substitution can be traced to no special doctrinal prejudice, but is owing, probably, to a well-meant correction of early scribes. At first sight, Theos (“God”) would be a reading easier to understand, and grammatically more exact; and in the original copies, the great similitude between ΘC (“God”)—the contracted form in which ΘEOC was written—and the relative ΘC (“He who”), would be likely to suggest to an officious scribe the very trifling alteration necessary for the easier and apparently more accurate word. Recent investigations have shown, however, beyond controversy that the oldest MSS., with scarcely an exception, contain the more difficult reading, ΘC (“He who”). The Greek pronoun thus rendered is simply a relative to an omitted but easily-inferred antecedent—viz., Christ. Possibly the difficulty in the construction is due to the fact of the whole verse being a fragment of an ancient Christian hymn, embodying a confession of faith, well known to, and perhaps often sung by, the faithful among the congregations of such cities as Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome—a confession embodying the grand facts of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the preaching of the cross to, and its reception by, the Gentile world, and the present session of Christ in glory. In the original Greek the rhythmical, as well as the antithetical character, of the clauses is very striking. In the English translation they can hardly be reproduced:—

“Who was manifested in the flesh,

justified in the Spirit,

seen of angels,

was preached among the Gentiles,

believed on in the world,

taken up into glory.”

Fragments of similar hymns to Christ are found in 2Timothy 2:11, and perhaps also in Ephesians 5:14.

Manifest in the flesh.—When the Son of God came forth from the Father “He was manifested in the flesh;” or, in other divine words, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father” (John 1:14. Comp. also 2Timothy 1:10). The men and women of the first days of Christianity who repeated or sang such words as these, must have accepted and firmly believed the dogma of the pre-existent glory of Christ.

Justified in the Spirit.—The truth of Jesus Christ’s own assertion respecting Himself, which seemed to be contradicted by His mortal liability to bodily weakness, and pain and suffering, and last of all to death, in the end was triumphantly vindicated or justified. Or, in other words, the claims of Jesus Christ to Divinity, put forth during His life of humiliation, were shown to be true. It was by His resurrection from the dead that Christ’s lofty claims to the Godhead were justified. The Spirit, to which reference is here made, was the higher principle of spiritual life within Him—not itself the Divinity, but intimately united and associated with it. In the power of this Spirit, which he had within himself, He did take His life which He had laid down, did re-unite His soul unto His body from which He separated it when He gave up the ghost, and so did quicken and revive Himself, and thus publicly proclaimed His divine nature, His awful dignity. (Comp. Pearson, On the Creed, Art. V.)

Seen of angels . . .—It has been suggested that “angels” mean here nothing more than His Apostles and His own chosen messengers, by whom Jesus Christ was seen after His claims to Supreme power had been justified in the Spirit which had raised Him from the dead. These saw Him first, and after that carried the glad message to the distant isles of the Gentiles. But in spite of the ingenuity of such an exposition, the plain, obvious meaning of the word “angels “must be maintained, for the invariable meaning of angelos in the New Testament (perhaps with the exception of the earlier chapters of the Apocalypse) is never “apostle,” but “angel.” He was “seen of angels”—that is, Jesus Christ, after His resurrection and return to the throne at the Father’s right hand, was, in His glorified humanity, visible to angels, who before had never looked on God. (Comp. Ephesians 3:10; Hebrews 1:6; 1Peter 1:12—each of which passages bears in some way on this mysterious subject.) Theodoret and St. Chrysostom have similarly commented on this statement respecting the angels’ share in the beatific vision.

Preached unto the Gentiles.—The angels now for the first time saw, and gazed on, and rejoiced in, the vision of the Godhead manifested in the glorified humanity of the Son; and what the angels gained in the beatific vision, the nations of the world obtained through the preaching of the gospel—viz., the knowledge of the endless love and the surpassing glory of Christ. This line of the ancient Christian hymn tells us that this early confession of faith was peculiarly the outcome of the Pauline churches; for in enumerating the six glories of the Redeemer God it tells us one of these glories consisted in the preaching of His gospel to those peoples who had hitherto sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. It was the splendid fulfilment of the Isaiah prophecy respecting the coming Messiah. “It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6).

Believed on in the world.—Different from Buddhism or even from Mahommedanism, Christianity has found acceptance among widely different nationalities. The religion of the Crucified alone among religions has a fair claim to the title of a world-religion. Its cradle was in the East, but it rapidly found a ready acceptance in the West, and in the present day it may be said not only to exist, but to exercise a vast and ever increasing influence in all the four quarters of the globe.

Received up into glory.—More accurately, received up in glory. These words refer evidently to the historical ascent of Christ into heaven—they declare the belief of these early churches in the fact of the Ascension as related in St. Luke’s Gospel.

This fragment of the triumph-song of the early churches embraces the leading facts of the Messianic story:—

(1) The Incarnation of the Son of God.

(2) The justification in His Resurrection of the lofty claims advanced by Him during the days of His humiliation.

(3) The Epiphany of the glorified Humanity of Christ.

(a) To angels in the beatific vision.

(b) To men in the preaching of the cross.

(4) The glorious results of the great sacrifice already visible in those first suffering, struggling days of the Church.

(5) The return to heaven, and the session in power at the right hand of God—closing the first part of the blessed resurrection mystery, and beginning the glorious reign of Christ over men from His throne in heaven.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

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