Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.VI.
(1) Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour.—From questions connected with the presbyters and others among the recognised ministers and officials of the church, St. Paul passes on to consider certain difficulties connected with a large and important section of the congregations to whom these presbyters were in the habit of ministering—the Christian slaves.
It was perhaps the most perplexing of all the questions Christianity had to face—this one of slavery. It entered into all grades and ranks. It was common to all peoples and nations. The very fabric of society seemed knit and bound together by this miserable institution. War and commerce were equally responsible for slavery in the Old World. To attempt to uproot it—to preach against it—to represent it in public teaching as hateful to God, shameful to man—would have been to preach and to teach rebellion and revolution in its darkest and most violent form. It was indeed the curse of the world; but the Master and His chosen servants took their own course and their own time to clear it away. Jesus Christ and His disciples, such as St. Paul and St. John, left society as they found it, uprooting no ancient landmarks, alarming no ancient prejudices, content to live in the world as it was, and to do its work as they found it—trusting, by a new and lovely example, slowly and surely to raise men to a higher level, knowing well that at last, by force of unselfishness, loving self-denial, brave patience, the old curses—such as slavery—would be driven from the world. Surely the result, so far, has not disappointed the hopes of the first teachers of Christianity.
This curse at least is disappearing fast from the face of the globe. St. Paul here is addressing, in the first place, Christian slaves of a Pagan master. Let these, if they love the Lord and would do honour to His holy teaching, in their relations to their earthly masters not presume upon their new knowledge, that with the Master in Heaven “there was no respect of persons;” that “in Jesus Christ there was neither bond nor free, for all were one in Christ.” Let these not dream for an instant that Christianity was to interfere with the existing social relations, and to put master and slave on an equality on earth. Let these, by their conduct to unbelieving masters, paying them all loving respect and honour, show how the new religion was teaching them to live.
That the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.—There would indeed be a grave danger of this, if the many Christian slaves, instead of showing increased zeal for their masters’ service, should, as the result of the teaching of the new society they had joined, become morose, impatient of servitude, rebellious. Very soon in Pagan society would the name of that Redeemer they professed to love, and the beautiful doctrines He had preached, be evil spoken of, if the teaching were for one moment suspected of inculcating discontent or suggesting rebellion. An act, or course of acting, on the part of professed servants of God which gives occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, is ever reckoned in Holy Scripture as a sin of the deepest dye. Compare Nathan’s words to King David (2Samuel 12:14) and St. Paul’s reproach to the Jews (Romans 2:24).
And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.(2) And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren.—This being in servitude to Christian masters, of course, in the days of St. Paul would happen less frequently. Let those Christian slaves who have the good fortune to serve “believing masters” allow no such thoughts as, “Shall I remain my brother’s slave?” take root in the breast and poison the life-work. Let them not presume on the common brotherhood of men in Christ, on their being fellow-heirs of heaven, and on this account deem their earthly masters their equals, and so refuse them the customary respect and attention. Let them remember that, though in heaven there would be no respect of persons, on earth the old class differences were not removed.
But rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit.—The Greek here is better translated thus: but the rather serve them, because believing and beloved are they who are partakers of their good service. Let these slaves of Christians rather (or, the more) serve their masters zealously and loyally, because the masters who will profit by their true faithful service are themselves believers in Jesus, the beloved of God. This thought should never be absent from the heart of a Christian slave to a Christian master. “Every good piece of work I do will be a kindness shown to one who loves my Lord.”
If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;(3) If any man teach otherwise.—Without confining the reference strictly to what had just been taught respecting the duty of Christian slaves, there is little doubt but that some influential teaching, contrary to St. Paul’s, on the subject of the behaviour and disposition of that unhappy class was in the Apostle’s mind when he wrote the terrible denunciation contained in these three verses against the false teachers of Ephesus. Schismatic and heretical preachers and writers in all ages have sadly hindered the progress of true religion; but in the days of St. Paul, when the foundation-stones of the faith were being so painfully laid, there seems to have been a life-and-death contest between the teachers of the true and the false. In this passage St. Paul lays bare the secret springs of much of this anti-Christian doctrine. There is little doubt but that at Ephesus there existed then a school, professedly Christian, which taught the slave who had accepted the yoke of Christ to rebel against the yoke of any earthly lord. Hence the indignation of St. Paul. “If any man teach otherwise,” different to my interpretation of the rule of Christ, which bids us bear all with brave patience, with loyal fortitude.
And consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.—The Apostle, no doubt, was referring to well-known sayings of the Redeemer, such as “Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s,” or “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” or “If any man will follow me, let him take up his cross daily, and follow me;” “But I say unto you, resist not evil,” “Love your enemies, pray for them which despitefully use you.” It was upon such sublime sayings as these—no doubt, current watchwords in all the churches—it was upon the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount that St. Paul based his teaching and grounded his advice to the slaves in the flock of Christ. But the false teachers, who would be Timothy’s bitterest and most determined foes at Ephesus, would not consent to these “wholesome words,” though they were the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To the doctrine which is according to godliness.—These self-willed men, in consenting not to the sublime words of Christ, at the same time refused to acquiesce in the doctrine which insisted upon a holy life: for Christian truth is inseparable from purity, single-heartedness, self-forgetfulness, brave patience.
He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings,(4) He is proud.—St. Paul, with righteous anger, flames out against these perverse men, who, using the name of Christ, substitute their short-sighted views of life for His, throw doubt and discredit upon the teaching of His chosen Apostles and servants, stir up discord, excite party spirit, barring, often hopelessly, the onward march of Christianity. The true Christian teaching is healthy, practical, capable of being carried out by all orders in the state, by every age or sex, by bond and free. The spurious Christian maxims of these men deal with subtle, useless, unpractical questions, which have no influence on ordinary life, and only tend to stir up strife and useless inquiry, and to make men discontented and rebellious. These unhappy men he first characterises as “proud:” literally, blinded with pride.
Knowing nothing.—Better rendered, yet without knowing anything; having no real conception of the office and work of Christ in the world.
But doting about questions.—While so ignorant of the higher and more practical points of Christian theology, the false teacher is “mad upon” curious and debatable questions, such as the nature of the ever blessed Trinity; God’s purposes respecting those men who know not, have not even heard of the Redeemer; and the like—problems never to be solved by us while on earth—questions, the profitless debating of which has rent asunder whole churches, and individually has broken up old friendships, and sown the seeds of bitter irreconcilable hatred.
And strifes of words.—Verbal disputes, barren and idle controversies about words rather than things; such wild war as also has raged, not only in the days of Timothy and of St. Paul, but all through the Christian ages, on such words as Predestination, Election, Faith, Inspiration, Person, Regeneration, &c.
St. Paul was writing, then, in the spirit of the living God, and was warning no solitary pastor and friend at Ephesus of the weeds then springing up in that fair, newly-planted vineyard of his, but was addressing the Master’s servants in many vineyards and of many ages; was telling them what would meet them, what would mar and spoil their work, and in not a few cases would break their hearts with sorrow.
Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.(5) Perverse disputings.—The older authorities read here a word which should be rendered “lasting or obstinate conflicts.” These words close the long catalogue of the fruits of the teaching of the false masters of the new faith, and point out that the disputes engendered by these useless and unhappy controversies would be no mere temporary difficulties, but would indefinitely prolong their weary story.
Of men of corrupt minds.—More accurately Tendered, corrupted in their mind. From their mind, over which corruption had spread, arose those mists which (1Timothy 6:4) had clouded their sight with pride. The language used seems to imply that for these unhappy men a time had existed when corruption had not done its fatal work.
Destitute of the truth.—More literally, deprived of the truth. The truth was taken away from them: this was the immediate consequence of the corruption which had spread over their minds.
Supposing that gain is godliness.—Here the translation of the Greek words must run thus, supposing that godliness is a source of gain. The article before the word signifying godliness requires this rendering of the sentence. (See Titus 1:11.) St. Paul, here adding his command to Timothy to have no dealings with these men, dismisses the subject with these few scathing words of scorn and contempt. One can imagine with what feelings of holy anger one like the noble chivalrous St. Paul would regard the conduct of men who looked upon the profession of the religion of the Crucified as a source of gain. This was by far the gravest of his public charges against these teachers of a strange and novel Christianity. We read elsewhere (1Corinthians 3:12-15) men might go wrong in doctrine, might even teach an unpractical, useless religion, if only they were trying their poor best to build on the one foundation—Christ. Their faulty work would perish, but they would assuredly find mercy if only they were in earnest, if only they were zeal. But these, St. Paul tells Timothy and his church, were not in earnest; these were unreal. Their religion—they traded upon it. Their teaching—they taught only to win gold. There was another school of teaching—he had just been dwelling on it—the teaching which told men, even slaves, simply, lovingly to do their duty as though ever in the presence of the Lord, without any restless longing for change. This teaching would win souls to Christ, but it would never win gold, or popular applause, or gain, as the world counts gain.
From such withdraw thyself.—Most, though not all, the ancient authorities omit these words.
But godliness with contentment is great gain.(6) But godliness with contentment is great gain.—Here the Apostle changes the subject of his letter somewhat abruptly. The monstrous thought that these wordly men dare to trade upon his dear Master’s religion, dare to make out of his holy doctrine a gain—the hateful word suggests to him another danger, to which many in a congregation drawn from the population of a wealthy commercial city like Ephesus were hourly exposed. This is an admirable instance of the sudden change we often notice in the subject matter in the midst of St. Paul’s Epistles, of what has been aptly termed “going off at a word.” The reasoning in the writer’s mind was, probably—“these false men suppose godliness will be turned into gain.” Yes, though they were terribly mistaken, still there is a sense in which their miserable notion is true. True godliness is ever accompanied with perfect contentment. In this sense, godliness does bring along with it great gain to its possessor. “The heart,” says Wiesinger, “amid every outward want, is then only truly rich when it not only wants nothing which it has not, but has that which raises it above what it has not.”
For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.(7) For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.—(Comp. Job 1:21.) Every earthly possession is only meant for this life—for the period between the hour of birth and the hour of death; we entered this world with nothing, we shall leave the world again with nothing. If we could take anything with us when death parts soul and body there would at once be an end to the “contentment” (of 1Timothy 6:6), for the future then would in some way be dependent on the present. This sentence is quoted by Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians, written early in the second century. Such a reference shows that this Epistle was known and treasured in the Christian Church even at that early date.
And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.(8) And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.—The Greek word rendered “let us be content” is better translated, we shall have a sufficiency. The argument will run thus: “All earthly possessions are only for this life; here, if we have the wherewithal to clothe us and to nourish us, we shall have enough;” if we have more than this, St. Paul goes on to show, we shall be in danger of falling into temptation.
There is no contradiction between this reading and that contained in this same Epistle (1Timothy 4:1-5). There the Apostle is warning the Church against a false, unreal asceticism, which was teaching men to look upon the rich gifts of this world, its beauties and its delights, as of themselves sinful, forgetting that these fair things were God’s creatures, and were given for man’s use and enjoyment. Here the same great teacher is pressing home the truth that the highest good on earth was that godliness which is ever accompanied with perfect contentment, which neither rejects nor deems evil the fair things of this life, but which, at the same time, never covets them, never longs for them. It was one thing to be rich, it was another to wish to be rich; in God’s providence a man might be rich without sin, but the coveting, the longing for wealth, at once exposed him to many a grave danger both to body and soul.
But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.(9) But they that will be rich.—Here St. Paul guards against the danger of his words being then or at any future time misinterpreted by any dreamy, unpractical school of asceticism, supposing that voluntary poverty was a state of life peculiarly pleasing to the Most High—the strange mistake upon which the great Mendicant orders were organised in the Middle Ages. Those who exposed themselves to the winning temptations and deadly sins he was about to speak of were not “the rich,” but those who longingly plan to be rich.
Fall into temptation.—Those longing to be rich will fall into the temptation to increase their worldly goods, even at the sacrifice of principle. Some unlawful method of gratifying their passion for gain will present itself; conscientious scruples will be thrown to the winds, and they who wish to be rich will fall into the temptation. We pray so often His prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” In the same hour we long—perhaps even with the same breath we pray—that our worldly means may be increased, our position bettered, little thinking that the longing for an increase of riches and position will lead us into the most dangerous of all temptations!
And a snare.—A very tangle, as it has been well called, of conflicting motives—each fresh gratification of the ruling passion, perhaps excused under the plausible names of industry, home claims, praiseworthy and healthy enterprise, entangling the unhappy soul more completely.
And into many foolish and hurtful lusts.—The lusts or desires into which those who long to be rich fall, are well named “foolish,” because in so many instances they are passionate desires for things utterly undesirable, the possession of which can afford neither pleasure nor advantage—such, for instance, is the love of hoarding wealth, so common to those men who have longed for and obtained riches; and “hurtful” often to the body as well as to the soul do these rich find their “longings,” when gratified.
Which drown men in . . .—Better rendered, which plunge men into . . .
Destruction and perdition.—“Destruction” refers rather to wreck and ruin of the body, whilst “perdition” belongs rather to that more awful ruin of the eternal soul. The gratification of desires, whether these desires are centred in the lower animal passions of the table, or in the pursuit of yet baser and more selfish passions still, invariably leads to the destruction of the poor frail human body first. This premature breaking up of the earthly tabernacle is the herald and precursor of the final perdition of the immortal soul.
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.(10) For the love of money is the root of all evil.—Some would water down this strong expression by translating the Greek words by “a root of all evil,” instead of “the root,” making this alteration on the ground of the article not being prefixed to the Greek word rendered “root.” This change, however, grammatically is unnecessary, as the article disappears before the predicate, in accordance with the well-known rule respecting subject and predicate.
St. Paul had just written (1Timothy 6:9) of men being plunged into destruction and perdition—the awful consequence of yielding to those lusts into which the fatal love of riches had guided them; he now sums up the teaching contained in these words by pithily remarking. “Yes, for the love of money is the root of all evil,” meaning thereby, not that every evil necessarily must come from “love of money,” but that there is no conceivable evil which can happen to the sons and daughters of men which may not spring from covetousness—a love of gold and wealth.
Which while some coveted after.—There is a slight irregularity in the image here, but the sense of the expression is perfectly clear. It is, of course, not the “love of money,” strictly speaking, which “some have coveted after,” but the money itself. The thought in the writer’s mind probably was—The man coveting gold longs for opportunities in which his covetousness (love of money) may find a field for exercise. Such inaccuracies in language are not uncommon in St. Paul’s writings, as, for instance, Romans 8:24, where he writes of “hope that is seen.”
They have erred from the faith.—Better rendered, they have wandered away from the faith. This vivid picture of some who had, for sake of a little gold, given up their first love—their faith—was evidently drawn by St. Paul from life. There were some in that well-known congregation at Ephesus, once faithful, now wanderers from the flock, over whom St. Paul mourned.
And pierced themselves through with many sorrows.—The language and the thoughts of Psalm 16:4 were in St. Paul’s mind when he wrote these words—“Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another (god).” The “many sorrows” here are, no doubt, the “gnawings of conscience,” which must ever and anon harass and perplex the man or woman who, for covetousness’ sake, has deserted the old paths, and has wandered away from the old loved communion of Christ.
The imagery used in this tenth verse seems to be that of a man who wanders from the straight, direct path of life, to gather some poisonous, fair-seeming root growing at a distance from the right road on which he was travelling. He wanders away and plucks it; and now that he has it in his hands he finds himself pierced and wounded with its unsuspected thorns.
But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.(11) But thou, O man of God, flee these things.—A commentator always speaks with great caution when he approaches in these inspired writings anything of the nature of a direct personal reference. The writers and actors in the New Testament history we have so long surrounded with a halo of reverence, that we are tempted often to forget that they were but men exposed to temptations like us, and not unfrequently succumbing to them. We owe them, indeed, a deep debt of reverence for their faithful, gallant witness—for their splendid service in laying so well the early storeys of the great Christian Temple; but we lose somewhat of the reality of the Apostolic story when in the saint we forget the man. After the very solemn, the intensely earnest warning against covetousness—that fatal love of gain and gold which seems to have been the mainspring of the life of those false teachers who were engaged in marring the noble work St. Paul had done for his Master at Ephesus—after these weighty words, the fact of St. Paul turning to Timothy, and, with the grand old covenant title Timothy knew so well, personally addressing his loved friend with “But thou, O man of God, flee these things,” leads us irresistibly to the conclusion that the old Apostle was dreading for his young and comparatively untried disciple the corrupting danger of the wealth of the city in which he held so great a charge; so he warns Timothy, and, through Timothy, God’s servants of all grades and powers in different ages, of the soul-destroying dangers of covetousness—“Flee these things.” A glance at Timothy’s present life will show how possible it was, even for a loved pupil of St. Paul—even for one of whom he once wrote, “I have no man likeminded;” and, again, “Ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel” (Philippians 2:20-22)—to need so grave a reminder. Since those days, when these words were written to the Philippians, some six years had passed. His was no longer the old harassed life of danger and hazard to which, as the companion of the missionary St. Paul, he was constantly exposed. He now filled the position of an honoured teacher and leader in a rich and organised church; many and grievous were the temptations to which, in such a station, he would be exposed.
Gold and popularity, gain and ease, were to be won with the sacrifice of apparently so little, but with this sacrifice Timothy would cease to be the “man of God.” To maintain that St. Paul was aware of any weakness already shown by his disciple and friend would, of course, be a baseless assertion; but that the older man dreaded for the younger these dangerous influences is clear. The term “man of God” was the common Old Testament name for “divine messengers,” but under the new covenant the name seems extended to all just men faithful to the Lord Jesus. (See 2Timothy 3:17.) The solemn warning, then, through Timothy comes to each of His servants, “Flee thou from covetousness.”
And follow after righteousness.—“The evil must be overcome with good” (Romans 12:21). The “man of God,” tossing away from him all covetous longings, must press after “righteousness;” here used in a general sense, signifying “the inner life shaped after the Law of God.”
Faith, love.—The two characteristic virtues of Christianity. The one may be termed the hand that lays hold of God’s mercy; and the other the mainspring of the Christian’s life.
Patience.—That brave patience which, for Christ’s dear sake, with a smile can bear up against all sufferings.
Meekness.—The German “sanftmuth”—the meekness of heart and feeling with which a Christian acts towards his enemies. His conduct who “when he was reviled, reviled not again” best exemplifies this virtue.
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.(12) Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life.—Then, again, with the old stirring metaphor of the Olympic contests for a prize (1Corinthians 9:24; Philippians 3:13-14)—the metaphor St. Paul loved so well, and which Timothy must have heard so often from his old master’s lips as he preached and taught—he bids the “man of God,” rising above the pitiful struggles for things perishable and useless, fight the noble fight of faith; bids him strive to lay hold of the real prize—life eternal. The emphasis rests here mainly on the words “the good fight” and “eternal life.” These things are placed in strong contrast with “the struggle of the covetous” and its “miserable, perishable crown.” “The good fight,” more closely considered, is the contest and struggle which the Christian has to maintain against the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is styled the “good fight of faith,” partly because the contest is waged on behalf of, for the sake of, the faith, but still more because from faith it derives its strength and draws its courage. “Eternal life” is the prize the “man of God” must ever have before his eyes. It is the crown of life which the Judge of quick and dead will give to the “faithful unto death.” (See James 1:12; Revelation 2:10.)
Whereunto thou art also called.—The “calling” here refers both to the inner and outward call to the Master’s work. The inner call is the persuasion in the heart that the one vocation to which the life must be dedicated was the ministry of the word; and the outward call is the summons by St. Paul, ratified by the church in the persons of the presbyters of Lystra.
And hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.—More accurately translated, and thou confessedst the good confession . . . These words simply add to the foregoing clause another ground of exhortation: “Thou wast called to eternal life, and thou madest the good confession.” When—has been asked—was this good confession made? Several epochs in the life of Timothy have been suggested. Were it not for the difficulty of fixing a date for so terrible an experience in Timothy’s, comparatively speaking, short life, it would appear most probable that the confession was made on the occasion of some persecution or bitter trial to which he had been exposed. On the whole, however, it appears safer to refer “the good confession” to the time of his ordination. In this case the many witnesses would refer to the presbyters and others who were present at the solemn rite.
I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession;(13) I give thee charge in the sight of God.—Better rendered, I charge thee in the sight of God. If possible, with increased earnestness and a yet deeper solemnity as the letter draws to an end does St. Paul charge that young disciple—from whom he hoped so much, and yet for whom he feared so anxiously—to keep the commandment and doctrine of his Master spotless; and, so far as in him lay, to preserve that doctrine unchanged and unalloyed till the coming again of the blessed Master. So he charges him as in the tremendous presence of God.
Who quickeneth all things.—The older authorities adopt here a reading which implies, who keepest alive, or preservest, all things. The Preserver rather than the Creator is here brought into prominence. Timothy is exhorted to fight his good fight, ever mindful that he is in the presence of that great Being who could and would—even if Timothy’s faithfulness should lead him to danger and to death—still preserve him, on earth or in Paradise.
And before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession.—Better rendered, who before Pontius Pilate bore witness to the good confession. The good confession which (1Timothy 6:12) Timothy confessed before many witnesses, Jesus Christ, in the presence of Pilate, had already borne witness to. In other words, Jesus Christ, before Pontius Pilate, bore witness by His own solemn words, that He was the Messiah—the long-looked-for King of Israel. If the preposition which we have, with the majority of expositors, construed “before” (Pontius Pilate) have here its local meaning, the “witness” must be limited to the scene in the Judgment Hall—to the interview between the prisoner Jesus and the Roman governor.
Although this meaning here seems the most accurate, it is possible to understand this preposition in a temporal, not in a local, signification—under (that is, in the days of) Pontius Pilate—then the “witness” was borne by the Redeemer to the fact of His being “Messiah:” first, by His own solemn words; secondly, by His voluntary death. The confession was that “He, Jesus, was a King, though not of this world.” (See Matthew 27:11; John 18:36-37, where the noble confession is detailed.) He bore His witness with a terrible death awaiting Him. It was, in some respects, a model confession for all martyrs, in so far as it was a bold confession of the truth with the sentence of death before His eyes.
That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ:(14) That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable.—Here St. Paul specifies what was the charge he was commending in such earnest, solemn language to his disciple and representative at Ephesus. It was that he should keep the commandment without spot, unrebukeable. The commandment was the teaching of Jesus Christ, the gospel message, that was to be proclaimed in all its fulness; and that this might be done effectually it was needful that the life of its preacher should be without flaw—blameless; in other words, it was absolutely requisite that the chief pastor in Ephesus should live the life he preached. There were those (the false teachers of whom he had been speaking, well known to Timothy) whose lives had dishonoured the glorious commandment they professed to love and teach.
Until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.—The speedy return of the Lord in glory was, no doubt, looked for in the Church of the first days. The expressions of 1Thessalonians 4:15-18 evidently were written at a time when the second advent of Messiah was looked on as probably near at hand. By slow degrees—as one great teacher of the first days after the other fell asleep in Jesus, and the first generation of believers was rapidly passing away, and no fresh sign of the coming in glory was manifested—the strong expressions used in the first fervour which succeeded the Pentecost morning began to be qualified, as in this Epistle, written far on in St. Paul’s life, by words which seemed to say to Timothy: “Keep the Master’s commandment pure and blameless till the hour of that glorious Epiphany which your eyes will possibly behold.”
Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords;(15) Which in his times he shall shew.—More accurately rendered, which in his own seasons. Here the language of fervid expectation is qualified by words which imply that in St. Paul’s mind then there was no certainty about the period of the “coming of the Lord.” It depended on the unknown and mysterious counsels of the Most High. The impression left upon our minds by the words of this and the preceding verse is that St. Paul had given up all hope of living himself to see the dawn of that awful day, but he deemed it more than probable that his son in the faith would live to witness it. Hence his words to him: “Keep the commandment without spot until the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Who is the blessed and only Potentate.—The stately and rhythmical doxology with which the solemn charge to Timothy is closed was not improbably taken from a hymn loved by the Ephesian Christians, and often sung in their churches; the words, then, were, likely enough, familiar to Timothy and his people, though now receiving a new and deeper meaning than before. Well might Timothy, as example to the flock of Ephesus, keep “the commandment without spot, unrebukeable”—fearlessly, even though danger and death were presented before him as the sure reward of his faithfulness—for He who in His own times should reveal (show) the Lord Jesus returning to earth in glory, was inconceivably greater and grander than any earthly potentate, king, or lord, before whose little throne Timothy might have to stand and be judged for his faithfulness to the “only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords.”
Of the first of these sublime titles, God is termed “the blessed,” or the happy, because He is the source of all blessedness and happiness; and the “only Potentate,” in solemn assertion that the Christian’s God was One, and that to none save to Him could this appellation “only Potentate” be applied. Possibly already in Ephesus the teachers of Gnosticism had begun their unhappy work—with their fables of the mighty æons, and their strange Eastern conception of one God the source of good, and another the source of evil.
The King of kings, and Lord of lords.—God is king over those men style kings, and lord over all men call lords here.
Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen.(16) Who only hath immortality.—The holy angels—the souls of men—are immortal. “But one alone, ‘God,’ can be said to have immortality,” because He, unlike other immortal beings who enjoy their immortality through the will of another, derives it from His own essence.
Dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto.—This should be rendered, dwelling in light unapproachable. The Eternal is here pictured as dwelling in an atmosphere of light too glorious for any created beings (not only men) to approach. (See Psalm 104:2, where the Eternal is addressed as covering himself with light as with a garment; see too Daniel 2:22, where light is spoken of as dwelling with God.) The symbolism of the old covenant teaches the same truth, the unapproachable glories in which God dwells; for instance, the guarding of the bounds of Sinai in the giving of the Law; the covering of the faces of the Seraphim in the year that King Uzziah died, when Isaiah saw the divine vision; the veiled darkness of the Holy of holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple, where ever and anon the visible glory dwelt.
Whom no man hath seen, nor can see.—The Old Testament teaches the same mysterious truth—“For there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33:20, and also Deuteronomy 4:12). John 1:18 repeats this in very plain words—“No man hath seen God at any time.” The Greek word here includes all created beings. The English translation, “no man,” utterly fails to reproduce the meaning of the original. (See also 1John 4:12.)
These last words seem to preclude the interpretation which applies the foregoing description to the Son. We have above referred this glorious doxology to the Father, as the one who, in His own times, should reveal the Lord Jesus returning to judgment.
It is, however, very noteworthy that the loftiest, the sublimest, epithets the inspired pen of Paul could frame to dignify his description of the First Person of the ever-blessed Trinity, God the Father, are used again of the Son. “The Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14; Revelation 19:16; and see too Revelation 1:5).
Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy;(17) Charge them that are rich.—Paul had traced up the error of the false teachers—against whose work and influence he had so earnestly warned Timothy—to covetousness, to an unholy love of money; he then spoke of this unhappy covetousness—this greed of gain, this wish to be rich—as the root of every evil. From this fatal snare he warned the “man of God” to flee, bidding him take courage in the high service to which he was dedicated, and to be fearless of all consequences, for he served the King of kings. But in the congregations of Ephesus there were many, owing to birth or to other circumstances, already rich and powerful, already in the possession of gold and rank, in varied degrees. Before closing the letter to the chief pastor, Timothy, he must add a word of encouragement and also of special warning to these. Above all things he would have no mistake as to his meaning: the wish to be rich was a sure root of error and of evil, but the being rich was a very different thing; this class was surrounded, indeed, with special perils, but still, even “as rich” they might serve God faithfully. So in his charge to them he commands them not to strip themselves of their wealth, but to use it wisely, generously.
In this world.—The Greek word rendered “world” signifies, in its literal sense, age, and includes the period which closes with the second coming of the Lord. Now, as St; Paul had just made a reference to the probable speedy coming of the Lord in judgment in Timothy’s lifetime, the words “the rich in this world” have a special signification. Very fleeting indeed will be those riches of which their possessors were so foolishly proud [be not high-minded, St. Paul urges]; these riches were a possession always terminable with life—possibly, let them bear in mind, much sooner.
Nor trust in uncertain riches.—The literal translation of the Greek here is more forcible—“nor trust in the uncertainty of riches.” Uncertainty—for (1) the very duration of life, even for a day, is uncertain; and (2) the numberless accidents of life—in war, for instance, and commerce—are perpetually reminding us of the shifting nature of these earthly possessions.
But in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy.—The Greek word rendered “living” does not occur in the more ancient authorities. Its removal from the text in nowise alters the sense of the passage. The rich should set their affections and place their trust, not in these uncertain riches, but in God, the bestower of them, who wills, too, that His creatures should find pleasure in these His gifts—given to us to enjoy.
This is another of the many sayings of the old man St. Paul, in which he urges on the people of God, that their kind Master in heaven not only allows men reasonable pleasures and gratifications, but even Himself abundantly provides such for them.
That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;(18) That they do good, that they be rich in good works.—These words—coming directly after the statement that the good and pleasant things of this world, which are possessed in so large a share by the “rich,” are, after all, the gifts of God, who means them for our enjoyment—these words seem to point to the highest enjoyment procurable by these “rich”—the luxury of doing good, of helping others to be happy the only enjoyment that never fails, never disappoints.
Ready to distribute, willing to communicate.—In distinguishing between these words, which are nearly synonymous, the first points rather to the hand which generously gives, and the second to the heart which lovingly sympathises.
The first obeys willingly the Master’s charge—“Give to him that asketh;” the second follows that loving command which bids His own to rejoice with those that rejoice, and to mourn with those that mourn.
Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.(19) Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come.—This is a concise expression, which might have been more fully worded thus—Laying up in store for themselves a wealth of good works as a foundation, &c. (Comp. our Lord’s words in Luke 16:9, where the same truth is taught, and a similar promise made.)
Here a simple command, in complete accordance with the teaching: of Christ, is given, and a definite consequence is attached to the obeying the command. If the “rich”—the word “rich,” we must remember, is a broad term, and in St. Paul’s mind would comprehend many a one who would hesitate to apply the term in its strict sense to himself—if the “rich,” or the comparatively rich, are really generous and kind with their wealth—and of this God alone can be judge—then with these perishable, fleeting riches they are laying the foundation of an everlasting habitation on the other side the veil. Bengel quaintly expresses the truth, slightly changing the metaphor—“Mercator, naufragio salvus, thesauros domum præmissos invenit.”
That they may lay hold on eternal life.—The older authorities here, instead of “eternal,” read truly. The sentence will then read thus, that they may lay hold on that which is truly life—that is, may lay hold on that which in truth deserves the name “life,” because the fear of death will no longer cast its gloomy shadow over it. This “laying hold on eternal life” is the end the wise rich Christian proposes to himself, when he orders his earthly life and administers his earthly goods, and St. Paul has just showed Timothy how this “end” is to be reached by such a man.
Such plain statements in the Book of Life as the foregoing by no means weaken the divine truth so often repeated, that men are saved only by the blood of Christ, with which they must sprinkle their sin scarred souls. Poor men and rich men alike may try; they will find, with all their brave struggles, that of themselves they will never win salvation, they cannot redeem their souls.
But such plain statements as we have here, and in Luke 16:9, tell us, if we really are “of Christ’s,” sprinkled with His precious blood, then we must try with heart and soul, with hand and brain, to follow out such charges as we have just been discussing.
O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called:(20) O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust.—More literally and better rendered, O Timothy, keep the trust committed to thee. It is a beautiful thought which sees in these few earnest closing words the very handwriting of the worn and aged Apostle St. Paul. The Epistle, no doubt dictated by the old man, was in the handwriting of some friend of St. Paul and the Church, who acted as his scribe; but, as seems to have been sometimes his habit (see especially the closing words of the Galatian Letter), the last pleading reminder was added by the hand of the Apostle himself. “O Timothy”—he writes now no longer addressing church or pastor, but his own favourite friend and pupil, the loved heir of his God-inspired traditions and maxims, which so faithfully represented the doctrine and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth—“O Timothy, keep the sacred trust committed to thy charge.”
This “sacred trust,” so solemnly committed as the parting charge to Timothy, was “the doctrine delivered by St. Paul to him to preach,” the central point of which, we know from the Apostle’s other writings, was the teaching respecting the atonement and the precious blood of Christ. There is a beautiful, though somewhat lengthened, paraphrase of the “Trust” in the Commonitorium of Vincentius Lirinensis, composed about A.D. 430. “What is meant,” he asks, “by ‘keep the trust?’ The disciple of St. Paul must keep the sound doctrine of his master safe from robbers and foes. . . . What is meant by ‘the trust?’ Something intrusted to you to keep—not a possession you have discovered for yourself; something you have received from another—not what you have thought out for yourself . . . of this ‘trust,’ remember, you are nothing but the guardian. . . . What, then, is the meaning of ‘keep the trust?’ It is surely nothing else than ‘guard the treasure of the Catholic faith.’ . . . Gold have you received; see that you hand gold on to others.”
“Is there, then,” asks this same wise writer “to be no progress, no development in religious teaching? Yes,” he answers; “there should be a real progress, a marked development, but it must partake of the nature of a progress, not of a change. . . . Let religion in the soul follow the example of the growth of the various members which compose the body, and which, as years roll on, become ever stronger and more perfect, but which, notwithstanding their growth and developed beauty, always remain the same.”
Avoiding profane and vain babblings.—The Apostle has before in this Epistle warned Timothy against these useless, profitless discussions. Anything like theological controversy and discussion seems to. have been distasteful to St. Paul, as tending to augment dissension and hatred, and to exalt into an undue prominence mere words and phrases.
Oppositions of science falsely so called.—Rather, of knowledge falsely so called. These “oppositions” have been supposed by some to be a special allusion to some of the Gnostic theories of the opposition between the Law and the Gospel, of which peculiar school, later, Marcion was the great teacher. It is hardly likely that any definite Gnostic teaching had as yet been heard in Ephesus, but there is little doubt that the seeds of much of the Gnosticism of the next century were—when St. Paul wrote to Timothy—being then sown in some of the Jewish schools of Ephesus and the neighbouring cities. (Comp. the allusions to these Jewish and cabalistic schools in St. Paul’s letter to the Colossian Church.) The “oppositions” here may be understood as referring generally to the theories of the false teachers, who were undermining the doctrine of St. Paul as taught by Timothy.
Which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen.(21) Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.—In this most probably wild and visionary “knowledge” the false teachers and their hearers sought salvation and a rule of life, and miserably failed in their efforts. The result with them was, that they lost all hold on the great doctrine of Faith in a crucified Saviour.
Grace be with thee.—The ancient authorities are almost equally divided between “with thee” and “with you,” the congregation. The public nature of so many of the directions and instructions contained in this Epistle account for the absence of those private greetings which we find in the Second Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy.