Studies in the Pastoral Epistles and Philemon

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Date: Saturday, May 18, 2024, 11:35 AM

1. 1 Timothy 1:3-11 - The Law Used Properly

The early church had doctrinal disagreements and behavioral problems. Paul asked Timothy to take care of several problems in Ephesus. Just as Roman emperors sometimes used “open letters” to publicly proclaim the instructions that a new governor was given, so also Paul used a letter to explain to the congregation what Timothy was authorized to do.

Confident speculations (verses 3-7)

After a brief introduction, Paul explains Timothy’s commission: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer.” Some people had added new teachings to the gospel. Paul’s letter does not tell us exactly what the false teachings were, but it does give us some clues. Some of the same ideas were in second-century Gnosticism, which taught salvation by learning various mysteries (the Greek word gnosis means “knowledge”).

Paul gives hints about heresy when he adds, “or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.” Gnostics said that there were numerous layers of authority in the heavens, and we must learn the names of those spiritual powers in order to ascend toward God. Paul may be referring to similar ideas with the word “genealogies.”

People were spending their time on speculations for which there was no proof. The modern equivalent might be prophecy, which at first may seem to attract people to the gospel, but ends up distracting people from what’s most important. The real focus of God’s message is faith—trusting in God, not in trying to learn things that everyone else has missed.

Apparently, some people liked these speculations, so why did Paul tell Timothy to put a stop to them? “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Paul wanted people to focus their faith on Christ.

But some people no longer had good motives and were trying to get followers for themselves. “Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Some people like to be known as teachers who bring new facts and new conclusions, and they can attract a following by speaking with confidence. They state (or imply), “You need what I am teaching and you can’t get it anywhere else.”

Laws made for sinners (verses 8-11)

In Ephesus, the false teachers had their own slant on the law. Paul begins to address that issue with a truism: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” But what is the proper use of the law? Paul explains that in the next few verses: “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers…”

As some Greek philosophers noted, good people do not need laws to tell them not to steal and kill. Virtuous people don’t want to do those things anyway. But bad people are tempted to do such things, and so the law gives them a minimum standard of conduct. In contrast, the Christian standard is the maximum—we want to let Christ live in us, bear the fruit of the Spirit and do the will of the Father.

Paul continues his list of ungodly behavior: “…for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers.” Greek society had few sexual restrictions, but the New Testament has many. Paul’s first word, pornos, covers a wide range of sexual practices, and is given the appropriately general translation “sexual immorality.”

Paul’s second word, arsenokoitēs, comes from roots meaning “male” and “bed.” These words were in the Greek version of Leviticus 18:22, which prohibits male-with-male sexual activity. Paul apparently agreed with the traditional Jewish restrictions on sexual activities.

Paul summarizes: the law is made “for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” Paul’s doctrines, always given in conformity with the gospel of grace, include some demands on our behavior. If an activity does not conform to the gospel, then it is right to prohibit it.

Things to think about

  • What confident speculations affect Christianity today? Why do people follow them? How can we avoid being misled by them?
  • If the law is not made for righteous people, is it possible for them to use it properly? Did Paul use it?

The author, Dr. Michael Morrison, teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: It’s accredited, affordable, and all online.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

2. 1 Timothy 2:1-7 - God Wants All to Be Saved

Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to correct a few doctrinal problems in the church. He also sent Timothy a letter outlining his mission—a letter that was designed to be read to the entire congregation so that everyone would know that Timothy was acting with Paul’s authority.

Prayer for public peace (verses 1-3)

Paul included some instructions for what should be done in the church meetings: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people.” The meetings would include prayer, and these prayers were to be positive, unlike the curses that became part of some synagogue liturgies.

But this was not just intercession for church members—the prayers were to be for all, including “kings and all those in authority.” Paul did not want the church to be elitist, nor become become identified with an underground resistance movement. A parallel may be seen in the way that Judaism dealt with the Roman Empire. Although Jews could not worship the Emperor, they could offer worship to God on behalf of the emperor; they made prayers and sacrifices for him (see Ezra 6:10).

Similarly, Paul wants church members to pray for government leaders. The purpose is “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” The early Christians were persecuted for the gospel, and for proclaiming allegiance to another Lord. They did not need to provoke officials even more by being anti-government agitators.

This approach has the approval of God himself: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior.” Although the word “Savior” usually refers to Jesus, in this case it seems to refer to the Father.

A message of salvation for all (verses 4-7)

Paul then includes an important digression about what God wants: “who wants all people to be saved…” Our prayers should not curse or condemn the rulers, because God does not want the worst for them. His desire for them is salvation—but this begins with an acceptance of the gospel message: “…and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Does God always get what he wants? Will everyone be saved? Paul does not address that question, but it is obvious that God does not always get his wishes, at least not right away. Even now, almost 2000 years later, “all people” have not yet come to a knowledge of the gospel, much less accepted it and experienced salvation. God wants his children to love each other, but it doesn’t always happen. His will is that humans have wills of their own.

Paul supports his claim by giving reasons: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” There is only one God, who created everything and everyone. His purpose for every person is the same: all were created in God’s image, to be a reflection and a representation of God on earth (Genesis 1:27). The oneness of God means that there is unity in his purpose for his creation. All humans are included.

Further, there is one mediator. We all have a relationship with God through Christ Jesus, who became a human, and can still be called a human, because he did not abandon his humanity to the grave. Rather, he was resurrected as a glorified human, and he rose to heaven in human form, for he has incorporated humanity as part of who he is. Since humanity was made in God’s image, essential aspects of humanity were in God’s mind from the beginning; it is no surprise that humanity can be given expression within the Godhead by Jesus.

As our mediator, Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all people.” Some theologians object to the plain meaning of this verse, but it fits well with verse 7, and with what Paul wrote a little later: God “is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). He died for the sins of all people, even for those who do not yet know it. He died only once; he did not wait for us to believe before he acted to save us. To use a financial analogy, he paid the debt, even for people who don’t yet realize it.

Now that Jesus has done this, what remains to be done? Now is the time for people to come to the knowledge of what Jesus has done for them, and that is what Paul is trying to do. “This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.” That is what he wants Timothy to be, too.

Things to think about

  • When we pray for our rulers, is it for their salvation, or for our own peace?
  • When we realize that Jesus died for our cantankerous neighbors, does it change our attitudes toward them?

Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: It’s accredited, affordable, and all online.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2012

3. 1 Timothy 3:1-16 - Good People Needed

Paul gives Timothy instructions about how the church should function and how to address some problems in first-century Ephesus. In chapter 3, Paul describes the kind of people Timothy should appoint as leaders for the churches.

A virtuous person (verses 1-3)

Paul says, “Anyone who desires to be a church official wants to be something worthwhile” (Contemporary English Version used throughout). The Greek word translated as “church official” comes from root words meaning to “look over”; it refers to someone who looks after others. Paul does not say whether it is good or bad to desire this role; he simply says that the role is good.

Then he gives some personal qualities needed for this position: “That’s why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage.[1] They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach.…”

Paul is focusing on the person, not the duties. Being “able to teach” suggests that leaders are supposed to teach, but Paul doesn’t say much about the details. The character of the person is more important than the specific duties. If you have good people, they will be good for the church.

Paul continues the virtues needed: “They must not be heavy drinkers or troublemakers. Instead, they must be kind and gentle and not love money.” They should not be in it for the money (see also 1 Peter 5:2).

Good management (verses 4-7)

“Church officials must be in control of their own families, and they must see that their children are obedient and always respectful. If they don’t know how to control their own families, how can they look after God’s people?” The church is like a family – we are children of God, and Jesus is our brother – but a church is not exactly like a family. A person might “control” the family, but leaders “look after” the church.

Families and churches are different today from what they were in the first century. In ancient times, a “family” could include dozens of people: children and their spouses, grandchildren and servants, all living together. Culture gave the head of household (usually the oldest male) nearly absolute power over the family. First-century churches were usually small, and met in houses; they found it natural to interact as a household.

People now have different expectations of family and church leadership. The biblical culture was not perfect, and neither is ours, but we all need to work where God has placed us. Paul’s point is that leaders in the church should care for the church in a similar way as they care for their own family, and that their success in their own family is some indication of how well they will do in the church.

Paul is describing the ideal candidate – he is not creating a list in which every item must be perfectly met. We see an example of that when he writes, “They must not be new followers of the Lord. If they are, they might become proud and be doomed along with the devil.” Paul did not include that requirement for the church leaders in Crete (Titus 1), because all the believers there were new. Titus just had to pick the best he could.

Paul is not saying that all church leaders must be heads of household; a single person might be an effective leader in some cases. Similarly, personal failures 20 years ago need not disqualify a person who has more recently been a good example. Paul expects Timothy to use common sense and good judgment in the way he applies this list. If no one meets all the qualifications, then Timothy should just pick the best person he can find.

Last, Paul says, “they must be well-respected by people who are not followers. Then they won’t be trapped and disgraced by the devil.” Paul himself wouldn’t meet this qualification very well. He was frequently in trouble with religious leaders and government officials. This again shows that Paul is presenting a list of “things to look for” rather than absolute requirements.

Good assistants (verses 8-13)

Paul next describes the personal characteristics needed for another leadership role in the church – the Greek word is diakonos; the traditional translation is “deacon.” In many respects, they should be like people in the first group. These are qualities needed not just in church leaders, but in all mature Christians:

“Church officers should be serious. They must not be liars, heavy drinkers, or greedy for money. And they must have a clear conscience and hold firmly to what God has shown us about our faith.” Paul does not say that they should be able to teach; this indicates that deacons did not have a teaching role.

Paul suggests a probationary period: “They must first prove themselves. Then if no one has anything against them, they can serve as officers.” In one sense, all church leaders need to “prove themselves” through good personal conduct ahead of time. They need to be “doing the job” before they are formally appointed. Paul also seems to suggest here that the congregation has a role in approving such appointments.

Paul next mentions qualities needed by another group: “Women<“>[2] must also be serious. They must not gossip or be heavy drinkers, and they must be faithful in everything they do.” Paul will say more about the proper behavior of women in chapter 5. Here, he continues his description of a good deacon:

“Church officers must be faithful in marriage. They must be in full control of their children and everyone else in their home.” A person whose home life is chaotic would probably be unreliable in the church as well. Paul summarizes: “Those who serve well as officers will earn a good reputation and will be highly respected for their faith in Christ Jesus.”

Summary of our religion (verses 14-16)

“I hope to visit you soon,” Paul writes. “But I am writing these instructions, so that if I am delayed, you will know how everyone who belongs to God’s family ought to behave.” Most likely, Paul was never able to visit Timothy in person, but his letter could address a few urgent needs. Due to the way that the Gentile churches were developing, he saw a need to say more about Christian behavior.

Timothy knew well that grace was the basis of our salvation. But perhaps he needed to be encouraged to say more about the way that people should respond to God’s grace. The gospel of grace teaches that we should have good behavior (Titus 2:11-12). God is sharing his life with us; we are to let him live in us and change us. God gives us life, yes, but if we are going to enjoy that life, then it matters a great deal about how we choose to live.

Paul connects our behavior with the message about Christ: “After all, the church of the living God is the strong foundation of truth.” We are to reflect truth in our actions as well as in our words.

“Here is the great mystery of our religion: Christ came as a human.” Although he was divine, he was also human. “The Spirit proved that he pleased God.” As led by the Spirit, Jesus was fully obedient. “And he was seen by angels.” This is not part of the normal apostolic message; it seems to refer to angelic approval while Jesus was living on earth.

“Christ was preached to the nations. People in this world put their faith in him.” This describes the spread of the church in response to what Jesus did. “And he was taken up to glory.” This seems out of chronological sequence, but it suggests that the growth and response of the church continues to give glory to Christ.

The Greeks had a word for it: ἐπίσκοπος

The word episkopos comes from the Greek roots epi and skopos, meaning “over” and “one who looks.” It refers to someone who looks after other people. The word supervisor is similar, because it comes from Latin words for looking over. “Overseer” is the English-root equivalent. Episkopos was eventually shortened to piskop, and then became bishop, and that is the traditional translation.

The New Testament uses several words for church leaders – overseer (or bishop), elder (presbyter) and shepherd (pastor). The terms seem to be interchangeable. Peter wrote to the elders and told them to be shepherds (pastors) watching over (like a bishop) the believers (1 Peter 5:1-2). Paul gave Timothy qualities of an episkopos (1 Tim. 3:2) but not for an elder, even though Ephesus had elders (1 Tim. 5:17). In Titus, the description of elders blends right into that of bishops (Titus 1:6-9).

The Bible does not describe exactly what these leaders were to do – that may depend on local circumstances.


[1] Some translations say “married only once,” but this is misleading, since the Greek word was used for behavior within a marriage, not the number of marriages. A single person can be a good leader for the church; so can a person who has remarried after death of a spouse or a divorce.

The Greek words literally mean “a one-woman man.” Rules were often put in the masculine even if they applied to women as well. For a lengthy study of whether women can have positions of leadership in the church, see

[2] Grammatically, it is not clear whether Paul means female deacons, or the wives of the male deacons. I think that he is referring to female deacons, because it would be odd to mention qualities needed for the wife of a deacon, when Paul has said nothing about the wife of an overseer. If Paul is referring to wives, then he is also implying that they had special functions within the church, and had a distinct role of their own.

All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society, Used by Permission.

This article was written by Dr. Michael Morrison in 2013. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It’s accredited, affordable, and all online.

4. 1 Timothy 5:1-16 - The Strange List of Widows

Many people read this chapter without thinking much about it. Almost no one has ever heard a sermon on it. But it is an important passage for helping us understand what the Bible is, and how we use it in the church today.

Various age groups (verses 1-2)

The church in Ephesus had a variety of problems, and Paul sent Timothy, one of his best assistants, to Ephesus to set matters back on track. Paul delegated his authority to Timothy, and he did not want Timothy to act arrogantly. So he advises:

“Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (NASB throughout).

This is good advice: treat people with respect, as if they are part of your own family. Even if you have authority over others, don’t just give orders. Instead, try to persuade people, and explain reasons for cooperation, instead of demanding it.

Maintain purity in your relationships—not only with young women, but with all people. Don’t take advantage of people who are weaker than you are.

Widows with families, and those without (verses 3-8)

Paul then gives advice on dealing with widows. From what he writes, we can see that there had been some sort of problem with widows in the church. He begins by implying that some widows should be treated differently from other widows: “Honor widows who are widows indeed.”

Some widows are not really widows, he seems to be saying. And then he explains: “but if any widow has children or grandchildren[1], they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.”

If the widow has family members who can take care of her, then they should be taking care of her. She is not a “real” widow, and the church does not need to treat her in the same way that the church deals with a widow who has no one to help her. The TNIV explains the idea in this way: “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.

What should Timothy do with widows who have no children to take care of them? “Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day.” The genuine widow is not only “alone”—without any family to support her—she is also pious, depending on God to take care of her, praying constantly.

But just as not all children are willing to take care of their familial responsibilities, not all widows are willing to dedicate their lives to God: “But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.” Some widows are more focused on worldly pleasures than on serving God. No matter whether they have children to support them or not, they are “dead”—they are not participating in the life that God has designed for them.

So what is Timothy supposed to do about it? “Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach.” But just what are “these things” that Timothy is to prescribe? Perhaps that a widow without children should look to God, rather than giving herself to wanton pleasures.

But Paul’s main concern here seems to be on widows who have children or grandchildren—Timothy is to “prescribe” to the children that they should take care of their widowed mother. This is made clear in the next verse:

“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” This verse is often taken out of context to say that a man should provide for his wife and children. That is a valid application of the principle—but in this context, it means that children should provide for their widowed mother.

The problem in Ephesus apparently involved widows whose children claimed to be believers, and yet wanted the church to take care of their widowed mother. But if adult children won’t support their own mother, then they are acting worse than pagans, and presumably they should not be counted as believers; they are refusing to act in accordance with the faith.

The list of widows (verses 9-12)

Paul then refers to a “list”: “A widow is to be put on the list only if she is not less than sixty years old.” As we read further, we will see what sort of list this is.

Just as Paul gave qualifying characteristics of church leaders in chapter 3, now he describes the sort of person who can be “on the list”:

  • As already mentioned, she must be 60 or older,
  • “having been the wife of one man, having a reputation for good works;
  • and if she has brought up children,[2]
  • if she has shown hospitality to strangers,
  • if she has washed the saints’ feet,[3]
  • if she has assisted those in distress,
  • and if she has devoted herself to every good work.”

Perhaps it is not yet clear what this “list of widows” is. But if we skip ahead to verse 16, we will see that it involves financial assistance from the church. Widows with adult children should be supported by their children; widows without children may be supported by the church.

How strict should Timothy be in including widows on this roster of support? What if she had been widowed twice—does she therefore not meet the description of being “the wife of one man”? Literally, she does not—but the Greek word was not used in such a literal way. A widow who remarried could still be considered “the wife of one man” if she was faithful to her second husband.[4] (The TNIV captures the meaning by saying “faithful to her husband.”)

What if the woman was age 59, but handicapped in some way? What if she never had any children to bring up? What if she had been a slave, or was too poor to “show hospitality to strangers”?

In a list like this, Paul is not trying to cover every possible situation. Rather, he is giving a general description, and he assumes that Timothy is sensible enough to make exceptions based on the circumstances. Similarly, we need to read with some common sense, not just in this list but also in chapter 3, making allowance for the situations we find ourselves in.

Paul wants to ensure that the widows on the assistance roster really need to be there, and that people should not abuse the charity of the church. But something more than financial need is involved. Paul is also concerned about the behavior of the widows: “But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge.”

What is this “previous pledge”? It is apparently a vow to not marry again. Widows could not be on the support roster unless they had promised to remain widows for the rest of their lives. In return for support from the church, they were to spend their lives in prayer.

But Paul did not think that a woman of age 50 or 55 could be trusted to do this: she is likely to have “sensual desires” so strong that she will break her promise and remarry. She should not be on the roster of widows who received assistance from the church.[5]

Was Paul correct in his assumption about a woman’s sensual desires? Perhaps it was generally true in the first-century Ephesian church; we have no way of knowing. But we cannot assume that the same is true today. It is not true that all women under age 60 are so prone to sensual desires that they are unable to keep a pledge of celibacy.

Paul lived in a particular culture, received some of his ideas about women from his culture, and he was writing to people who lived in that same culture. His advice may have been good in his cultural setting, but it would be wrong for us to insist that his assumptions hold true in our culture as well.

When we read Scripture, we need to be aware that it was written in a certain cultural context, and that culture affected the way it was written—not just in language (Greek) but also in the way beliefs are explained. We today live in a different culture, and our culture affects the way that we read Scripture. We bring our own assumptions to the text. Neither culture is “correct,” and our goal in reading is not that we re-create the ancient culture, but to learn from how God inspired the ancient writers to instruct people in the ways of God in that situation.

The instructions are usually good for us as well, but sometimes they address social circumstances that are so unlike our own that we would be wrong to follow the instructions to the letter. Just as Timothy needed to use some common sense in applying the description of a “widow indeed,” we need to think about how we apply his instructions to our day.

Does that mean that we let modern culture tell us what is right and wrong? No—but neither can we assume that what was “right” in first-century Ephesus is necessarily right for the church today. Despite what Paul commanded Timothy to do, we do not set up a roster of widows age 60 and over who vow to remain unmarried. What was appropriate then, is not now.

Most Christians have not thought much about why we ignore this passage of Scripture. Even in fundamentalist churches, there is no movement to “get back to the original church” in regard to widows. Why not? It is because everyone reads with cultural assumptions, and people in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, looked at this chapter with a filter that says “we don’t do this nowadays.”

And yet when they looked at 1 Timothy 2:12, they responded, “We ought to do this; this is inspired instruction from an apostle of Christ, and anyone who thinks otherwise is disobedient to the inspired Scriptures.” But they never gave much thought as to why they could ignore one passage, even though it contained several commands, and yet insist on the other, which simply stated Paul’s current policy. They were selectively literalist, because their own culture caused them to be more aware of some issues than others. They turned commands into suggestions, and suggestions into commands.

This is only to be expected. Writers and readers all live in a certain culture, and each culture affects which questions we address, the way in which we address them, and the way in which we read what others wrote in different settings. Our goal is not to do church and family in exactly the way it was done in Paul’s day, but to hear the Holy Spirit in applying the love of God in the situations we are in.

Advice for younger widows (verses 13-16)

As we continue reading this passage, we will see more about the situation Paul was addressing. He says this about the younger widows: “At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention.”

The problem was not just that young widows were a financial drain on the church—there was also a behavioral problem: the women were spreading gossip instead of praying, and teaching things they should not.[6] Paul concluded that this problem affected all women under age 60. His conclusion may have been true in first-century Ephesus, but we should not assume that it is true in all cultures and all ages.

What should younger widows do instead? “Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach; for some have already turned aside to follow Satan.”

Paul states this as his preference (in this, it is similar to 1 Corinthians 7:7 and 7:26). God inspired Scripture to include opinions of the writer; not everything in Scripture is a command for all peoples in all situations.[7]

Paul’s desire is nearly impossible for a widow aged 55—she is not likely to “bear children” even if she does marry. Although Paul’s desire is in inspired Scripture, we cannot assume that his advice is always appropriate for the church today. Our circumstances are different.

Paul concludes: “If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.”

His instructions here could apply quite well to a man who had dependent widows. So why did Paul specify a woman? I suspect it was because a specific woman was involved in the problem in Ephesus: a woman in the church did not want to support her own mother and/or grandmother, and expected the church to take care of them. Meanwhile, she and other women spent their time in spreading gossip and indulging in “wanton pleasures.”

So Paul gave a few rules that would prevent such a problem—but the advice he gave for first-century Ephesus is not designed to be a policy manual for all churches in all cultures and all centuries. We should not assume that all Scripture is inspired for this particular purpose, or that it must be applied “to the letter.”

The challenge for us today

All of Paul’s letters were written to specific churches, to address specific situations. Some of his teachings apply today; others need to be adapted for our situations. This means that we need to read cautiously, and to read with humility.

An attitude of “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” may sound good at first, but it is erroneous and arrogant. The error can be shown in that we could find commands in Scripture that such people ignore. The arrogance is that such people think that their own understanding of Scripture settles the matter. They think they know everything that needs to be known.

Almost anyone in modern society is able to read Scripture, and able to benefit from the reading. Scripture has long been a key component in spiritual formation and growth. But a person could memorize the entire Bible and still not understand how and when to apply it. Reading, in itself, does not make anyone an expert in the subject.

Parts of Scripture are hard to understand, and some parts are easy to misunderstand. We read them and think we know what they mean, when we have missed the point entirely. Some expertise is needed—an expertise that we cannot expect every believer to acquire.

Every believer should try to understand, but with the humility that is aware that some misunderstanding might be present as well. So we need to read Scripture in a community, and listen to what others in the Christian community say about Scripture—especially those who have studied it more than we have. Scripture is like most any other subject: people who spend more time generally learn more, and people who enroll in formal study generally learn much more.

Each of us does something for our own health every day: we eat, we get some exercise, we avoid certain dangers. But when things go wrong, we usually seek professional help, from people who have more experience in dealing with this particular type of problem and how it might be fixed. The existence of experts does not minimize the importance of our daily attempts to take care of our health, but if we are willing to listen, the experts can help us make our daily routines more effective.

In the same way, the church has various levels of specialization in theology and Scripture. This does not mean that believers should roll over and play dead, passively absorbing whatever the “experts” teach. Rather, it means that believers should be willing to learn from people who have studied more, so that each believer might study Scripture more effectively, think about God more accurately, and live more fruitfully.

Although we do not maintain a list of widows in the way that Paul commanded for Ephesus, we can nevertheless learn much from this passage. Indeed, it is precisely because we do not maintain a list of widows, that we can learn from this passage about the nature of Scripture itself, what it was inspired to contain, and the care that we need as we read instructions written to other people in a different era and a different culture.


[1] The “children or grandchildren” under discussion here are presumably members of the church, who are willing to “practice piety” by taking care of their own family. Paul does not say what Timothy should do if the children are unbelievers who shirk their duty toward their widowed mother.

[2] The requirement that she has raised children is surprising, since another requirement is that if she has children, they should be supporting her. If we are strict about the requirements, she would qualify for the list only if all her children have died.

[3] Footwashing is a metaphor for serving others. If everyone in the church literally washed someone’s feet in an annual ceremony, everyone would meet this requirement and there would be no need to mention it.

[4] Paul uses a similar word in the qualifications for church leaders: “husband of one wife” (3:2). But Paul is not concerned about whether the person has been married before—the concern is for how the person is currently functioning in marriage. The TNIV says, “faithful to his wife.”

[5] We might think that the problem was the pledge, but Paul does not seem to entertain that thought. He believes that the pledge is necessary, and the problem is that people might break it.

[6] This is probably one of the reasons why Paul was not, at that time, allowing women to be teachers in the church (2:12). There was a problem in Ephesus specifically with women.

[7] 1 Timothy 2:12 is another example—it is given as Paul’s policy, not as a command for all situations. But even when Paul states something as a command, it may be colored with his own cultural assumptions and preferences. When he says, Greet one another with a holy kiss, he is phrasing his command with terminology appropriate to his culture, but not appropriate for ours.

We see another example in 1 Timothy 5:23: “Use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” This advice was intended for one specific person: Timothy. Nevertheless, it is part of inspired Scripture. We go wrong if we assume that everything in Scripture is designed directly for us.

This article was written by Dr. Michael Morrison in 2013. If you’d like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It’s accredited, affordable, and all online.

5. 2 Timothy 1:1-14 - Paul's Farewell Letter

During the reign of Emperor Nero, the apostle Paul was placed on “death row” in a Roman prison. Although he had been released from prison several times before, Paul now senses that death will be his only escape. He writes his last letter to the man who had worked with him the longest. He encourages Timothy to continue his work.

Paul begins by explaining who he is: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.”

Timothy already knows this, so why does Paul include it? He probably wants Timothy to see himself in similar terms: appointed by the will of God and promised life in Christ. Timothy should not view his work as optional, and even if officials threaten to kill him, he needs to remember that life is guaranteed in Christ, not in the Empire.

“To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” By calling Timothy his “dear son,” Paul sets a tone of affectionate advice.

Be bold with the gospel (verses 3-7)

Paul begins with indirect praise: “I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.” Paul gives God the credit for all the good that he sees in Timothy, and he assures Timothy that he is praying for him. He mentions his “clear conscience” — something he wants Timothy to have, too.

“Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” We do not know what the tears were about —perhaps Timothy’s sorrow at leaving Paul, thinking that it might be the last time they would see each other.

Paul reminds Timothy of his roots: “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” Paul wants Timothy to continue in this same path.

“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” Since you have faith, Paul says, put it to use. 1 Timothy 4:13-14 implies that Timothy’s “gift” was preaching the gospel. And as we continue reading this letter, we see that this is what Paul wants him to do.

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” Don’t shrink back, Paul says — be bold. God gives us what we need: strength, love for others, and self-discipline. When it comes to the gospel, many people have a spirit of timidity, but timidity is not from God. So we might need to pray for strength, or love, or self-discipline. All of these come from God.

Was Timothy timid? Paul’s words might simply be a rhetorical strategy. He had sent Timothy on several difficult missions; it seems that Paul was confident in Timothy’s ability and willingness. He wanted to encourage him to continue the good work he was already doing.

Don’t be ashamed of suffering (verses 8-12)

Since God gives us what we need, “do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner.” Most people “would” be ashamed: Paul was on death row for telling people that Jesus, not Nero, was Lord and King. Jesus had been executed as an enemy of the Empire, and Paul seemed headed for that, too. Timothy had helped Paul spread his message.

“But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God…” You will suffer for doing it, but God will give you the help you need.

And then Paul reminds Timothy of what the gospel is, and why he should preach it: God “has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” The word “holy” means “set apart for God.” God not only gives us eternal life, he tells us that our life has purpose — we are set apart for God’s use.

“This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Even before God created us, he knew that we would need a Savior, and he forgave us ahead of time.

Although the plan for salvation was in place all along, people didn’t know about it until Christ came. He defeated our worst enemy, death, and gave us the good news of eternal life. “And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.” Timothy already knows Paul’s commission, but Paul says it here because it applies to Timothy, too. He is passing the baton to someone who will continue the work. The job is larger than anyone can do, so part of the job is recruiting, training, and passing it along to others.

The message is good news, and yet it is not always accepted as good. “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

Timothy has also been appointed as someone who should testify about Christ and the immortality Christ has revealed. Timothy need not be ashamed, nor afraid of prison and death, because he knows that Christ is faithful — we can trust our lives to him, and he’ll keep every promise he has made.

Keep the treasure safe (verses 13-14)

After explaining his own commission and commitment, Paul then addresses Timothy more directly: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.” I did it — now you do it. Don’t change the message — repeat it.

“Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” The “good deposit” is the message of salvation, and it is preserved with the help of God’s Spirit. Paul is not explaining doctrine — he is creating a motivational message, mixing commands, personal testimony, and assurance to help Timothy carry on without him.

Things to think about

  • Is there someone for whom I frequently thank God? (v. 3)
  • Has God given me a gift that I should fan into flame? (v. 6)
  • Am I embarrassed by the gospel? (v. 8)
  • Am I willing to be embarrassed by the gospel?
  • How does the Holy Spirit help me guard the gospel? (v. 14)

The Greeks had a Word for it: Συνείδησις

The Greek word syneidēsis first meant to be aware of something, to be conscious of something. 1 Peter 2:19 uses it in that sense, referring to a person who “is conscious of God”— aware of his existence.

But syneidēsis came to be used primarily for self-awareness, especially beliefs that one’s actions are right or wrong: the conscience. People can have a good conscience, thinking that they have done right (2 Tim. 1:3), or a bad conscience, believing that they have done wrong (Heb. 10:22). The conscience can lack sensitivity (1 Tim. 4:2) or be overactive (1 Cor. 8:10-12). The conscience not only evaluates past actions, but also considers whether future actions are right.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

6. 2 Timothy 1:15-2:7 - Work Hard for the Lord

Paul refers to his own situation in Rome: “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.” These men didn’t necessarily desert Christ, but they were afraid to help Paul in his most recent troubles.

In contrast to them, Paul praises someone who was not afraid: “May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.” Onesiphorus had helped Paul in prison, and now Paul asks God to help his family. Was he still alive? We do not know.

“On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me.” This is an example that Timothy might need to copy when he comes to Paul (4:21).

“May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!” Did Paul think that he needed to ask God to show mercy to a loyal worker? No; Paul is playing on words: Just as Onesiphorus “found” Paul, Paul wants him to “find” mercy. Paul knows that the Lord “will” give him mercy, because the Lord is full of mercy, and it has already been granted, even before time began. Nothing can change that.

Strengthened by grace (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

Paul exhorts Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” “Strong in grace” could have several meanings: 1) to be confident in God’s grace toward humanity, 2) to emphasize grace in preaching, or 3) emboldened by God’s grace, to be confident in all of life.

Paul knows that he is going to die, and Timothy will die, too. So Paul wants him to train some replacements, to create an expanding network of teachers: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” This is a good principle for ministry today.

“If God’s church had a foundation stone, what would be inscribed on it? Paul says it would have a promise, and a warning.”

Timothy will encounter problems, persecution, and sometimes even boredom. Timothy needs to be mentally prepared for the challenges. So Paul reminds him that he needs to be committed: “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Timothy is not alone — he is enduring it “with us.” And he is not working for himself — he is working for Christ.

“No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs — he wants to please his commanding officer.” It’s OK to be involved in secular affairs — Paul sometimes worked as a tentmaker — but Timothy should not be entangled in the secular world, looking there for his sense of self-worth. He is primarily a servant of Jesus, and he should seek to please Jesus, even if he has a secular job.

Paul moves to another metaphor: “Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.” Paul hints at a “victor’s crown” for Timothy, when the work is done the way his commander wants it done.

A third metaphor: “The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.” Paul again hints that Timothy will receive something in return.

Paul was not the first to use soldiers, athletes and farmers as examples of diligence — various Greek writers used the same three metaphors. Paul uses this trio to point out that gospel work involves toughness, focus, obedience and hard work. He concludes by inviting Timothy to see himself in these metaphors: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.”

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

7. 2 Timothy 2:8-15 - Summary of the Gospel

The gospel (verses 8-13)

Paul now moves to another topic, and a different style. He begins with a pithy saying: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel…” It’s about Jesus, summarized here by his resurrection and his role as Messiah in the line of David.

Paul sometimes gave more prominence to the crucifixion, but as he sat on death row, the resurrection might well grow in importance. And Jesus’ Davidic role may be what got Paul into the most legal trouble: he was proclaiming that Christ was king.

It is the gospel “for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal.” But ironically, “God’s word is not chained.” The work is still being done, because Paul gave the message to reliable workers who could teach many more.

“Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” Why should Timothy work hard and risk persecution? Earlier, Paul hinted at a reward. Here, he emphasizes the results it has for other people — he wants others to become aware of and grasp the salvation that is (already) in Christ. That is something he can feel good about forever: the reward is intrinsic to the work.

Paul includes another summary of the message — this one has rhythm to make it easier to remember. “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him” (and we did), “we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (another hint of reward).

And what happens with the opposite extreme? “If we disown him, he will also disown us. If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” In the first three pairs, we are like Christ. In the fourth, Paul breaks the parallelism: If there is any failure in the process, it is because we have rejected our Savior. If we follow him, we will get what we want: eternal glory. If we reject him, we will also get what we want: he will let us leave. His desire for us continues; the question is, whether we will continue to desire him.

Good work (verses 14-15)

In another change of style and topic, Paul begins to warn Timothy that some doctrinal discussions are a waste of time: “Keep reminding them of these things” — of the central truths of the gospel. “Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.” What words were people arguing about? We do not know.

In contrast to fruitless arguments, Paul advises Timothy to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Timothy needs to work with the gospel correctly, with no regrets when he presents himself to God.

Things to think about

  • Is my pastor training the next generation of leaders? (v. 2) Is there anything I can do to make it easier for my pastor to do that?
  • Do I feel like a soldier or an athlete working for Christ? (v. 5)
  • What does it mean for Christ to be faithful even to the faithless? (v. 13)
  • What is the most recent fruitless argument I have seen? (v. 14)

The Greeks had a Word for it: Ορθοτοµέω

Orthotomeō comes from orthos, meaning straight, and temnō, meaning to cut. We see ortho in English words such as orthodontist and orthodoxy; we see the root tom in words such as appendectomy and atom (something that supposedly could not be cut).

Literally, orthotomeō means to cut straight, a skill needed in tentmaking and other crafts. Paul uses the word in 2 Timothy 2:14 as a metaphor for accurate work in the “word of truth.” The emphasis is accuracy, not surgery. Paul is not talking about dividing the truth, nor is he talking specifically about Scripture. Rather, he wants the gospel to be handled correctly, and that Timothy not be distracted away from its central truths.

The word is used in other Greek literature for cutting a road through a forest — the emphasis is on making a straight path, not on cutting the forest in two. In the context of 2 Timothy, Frederick Danker suggests that the word implies to “guide the word of truth along a straight path (like a road that goes straight to its goal), without being turned aside by wordy debates or impious talk” (Greek-English Lexicon [University of Chicago Press, 2000], 722).

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

8. 2 Timothy 2:16-3:13 - Living in Terrible Times

Paul advises, if you don’t want to be embarrassed, then “avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (2:16). Don’t waste your time with pointless discussions. If we give them “equal time,” “their teaching will spread like gangrene.” And then Paul gives a specific example: “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”

We are not sure how those two men got that idea. Maybe they took Paul’s idea that we are raised with Christ, to conclude that we already have all that God has to offer. That idea would not be very attractive to an apostle on death row! They probably thought their idea was the most important teaching in the church, but Paul says it was a waste of time, and it had caused some people reject Christianity.

Even though some people lead others astray, “nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”“ The Greco-Roman world had many buildings with inscriptions.

If God’s church had a foundation stone, what would be inscribed on it? Paul says it would have a promise, and a warning. God will be faithful to his people, and his people need to stay away from sin. If we want the results of righteousness, we need to do what is righteous. We need to be faithful to our commanding officer.

A noble instrument (verses 20-26)

Paul turns from the building, to objects inside the building: “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble.” Some are fine dinnerware; others are good for scraping mud off your boots. Some are ornate decorations, and others are chamber pots.

But what is Paul’s point in this analogy? “If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” There’s a good way to live, and a bad way. If we want the results of righteousness, then we need to put wrong ways out of our lives. So Paul advises Timothy to “flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” All of us who follow Christ should love these virtues.

And then Paul returns for a third blast against fruitless disagreements: “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” Some people may try to divert your attention toward their favorite topic of disputation, but don’t take the bait.

“The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” Just teach the truth; don’t get involved in personal attacks (which were common in the ancient world; there was intense competition for status and honor, often at the cost of insulting and tearing down possible competitors).

Paul explains how to deal with enemies: “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” They have a distorted view of reality, and they unwittingly serve the devil’s purposes. But we do not condemn — we hope for the best, praying that God will eventually help them see the truth.

When personal resentment rises up within us, we need to respond not only with prayer for our opponent, but also prayer for ourselves, that we too might escape the trap of the devil.

In Paul’s last letter to his favorite assistant, he warns Timothy about the opposition that Timothy will face, and encourages him to continue what he already knows is true.

Living in terrible times (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

This chapter begins with a warning: “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.” Many Jews speculated about what the future held, and many predicted that society would reach its worst point just before God intervened to straighten everything out. As verse 5 makes clear, Paul is saying that the “last days” are already under way (see also Acts 2:16-17 and Hebrews 1:2).

But that was almost 1,950 years ago. How could the first century be the “last days”? Either Paul was mistaken as to how soon Christ would return, or else we are mistaken in how Paul is using the language of prophecy. Or both.

It is a mistake for us to look at Paul’s description, see it happening around us, and conclude that Christ will soon return. We live in the last days, yes, but so did Paul. If Christ’s return could be 2,000 years away from Paul, it might be for us, too. It could be very soon, but it might not, and current events do not prove it one way or the other.

Let’s look at Paul’s description: “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power.”

Missing from this list is torture, murder and genocide; the list seems a bit tame in comparison to atrocities that also existed in the ancient world. Paul is not describing the worst of all possible worlds — he is describing Timothy’s opponents: people who might look like they are godly, but who are actually rejecting the gospel.

Paul does not say here what his opponents taught, but other ancient writings help us make an educated guess. Many Greeks thought that spirit is good and matter is bad, so a good God did not create the physical world. Rather, he created a lesser god, who created a yet lesser god, who created another, who created another, etc., in a long series of gradually less-good gods, one of whom was finally so far removed from perfection that he created the physical world, and human souls somehow got trapped in physical bodies.

Salvation was seen as the process of escaping matter, and it required a person to learn the genealogy of the gods and the way to navigate up through these levels in order to reach the original perfection. There was no evidence for these speculations, but they were attractive to some Christians in the first and second centuries. Paul’s advice was simple: “Have nothing to do with them.”

Truth will prevail (verses 6-9)

Paul describes the result such people were having in the early church: “They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.”

These smooth-talking salesmen were able to convince some women (sections of 1 Timothy seem to address the same problem), and even though the women learned all sorts of secret “knowledge,” they never really learned anything useful. Their anxiety about their sins and desires made them easy prey for a philosophy that offered a way for them to work their way out of the problem. The real truth is much simpler: Christ has done it for us; we do not need to be burdened with guilt or enslaved to our own desires.

Paul compares them to Egyptian magicians: “Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth — men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.” “Rejected” is too strong of a translation; the Greek word adokimos may also mean “incorrect” or “unapproved.” God has not totally rejected them, but we should reject them as far as the faith is concerned, that is, we reject what they teach.

“But they will not get very far,” Paul concludes, “because, as in the case of those men [i.e., Jannes and Jambres], their folly will be clear to everyone.” Paul does not tell us when or how (indeed, he says in verse 13 that the deceivers will soon get worse). His purpose is not to make a specific prediction, but to encourage Timothy to stick to the truth because eventually everyone will see that Timothy’s opponents are wrong.

Staying on track (verses 10-12)

Paul reminds Timothy that he has a firm foundation: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love…” Timothy has heard the arguments, but Paul does not point him there. Rather, he points to the way in which Paul lived out the truth of the gospel. Paul’s own steadfastness is an important testimony to the validity of the message.

Not only did Paul have desirable qualities, he also had some undesirable experiences. Timothy knew about these, too: “endurance, persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured [see Acts 13-14]. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” Paul writes this from prison, and expects death, so he knows that the Lord does not rescue his people from all situations. The point is that he can, and often has, so Timothy can be confident that the Lord will take care of him.

Timothy will experience some trouble, too: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Indeed, it will sometimes look like the bad guys are winning: “while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” Paul’s purpose here is not to make specific predictions — the purpose of this “battle rhetoric” is to steel Timothy for the hardships that will come. If he expects the worst, nothing will catch him off guard.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

9. 2 Timothy 4:6-18 - The Time Has Come for My Departure

Paul is in prison, waiting for his last trial. He knows that he will probably lose and then be executed for preaching the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. He is ready for death, and he encourages Timothy to continue the work in the coming years.

My time has come (vv. 6-8)

Paul explains why he gives Timothy a commission: because Paul will soon die. He sees it as the culmination of a life well lived, in service to his King: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.” He is in the final season of his life, and he looks back with some satisfaction:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” These metaphors are different ways to say the same thing, and all convey a sense of completion.

“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Paul again refers to the Day of Judgment, and the rewards Christ will give.

A “crown” (stephanos) may refer to the laurel wreath given to people who won a race. The point is not that we will literally have something on our heads, but that we will be rewarded with the gift of being accepted by God. The righteous status we now have will then be ours permanently and in its fullness. We need to keep our eyes on the future reward.

Personal requests (vv. 9-13)

In the last part of his letter, Paul refers to a number of people and circumstances. In most cases we can only speculate about the details. “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” We do not know the nature of his desertion, or why he went to Thessalonica.

“Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia.” Perhaps Paul sent these men, or they simply decided to get out of Rome.

“Only Luke is with me.” Verse 21 shows that other people are with Paul, too; what Paul probably means here is that Luke is the only one remaining from Timothy’s generation of co-workers.

“Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” Many years earlier, Mark had deserted Paul, but he later helped Paul in prison (Acts 13:13Col. 4:10). How he helped is not known.

“I sent Tychicus to Ephesus.” He may have carried the letter to Timothy — and by staying in Ephesus, he would make it easier for Timothy to leave.

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” As winter approached, he needed that cloak. What was written on his parchments? Perhaps books of the Old Testament; perhaps copies of his own letters.

Resisting the enemy (vv. 14-18)

“Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm.” We do not know if this is the man mentioned in 1 Tim. 1:20. He must have done something either to get Paul thrown in prison, or to lose a trial.

No matter what, Paul did not retaliate: “The Lord will repay him for what he has done.” However, Paul does not want Timothy to forget the danger of a repeat performance: “You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.” We do not know whether Alexander’s objections were political, pagan, Jewish, or Gnostic.

“At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.” Paul implies that he will have a second defense, although due to imperial policy in Rome, condemnation was probably inevitable.

But good came out of his trial anyway: “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” Paul was not put in prison for any criminal action — the only accusation against him was his message, so it would be natural for him to present that message in court.

“And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.” He escaped immediate punishment, but his case was forwarded to another judge, perhaps Nero himself, who was almost certain to order an execution.

Paul believes his time is up, but he says with confidence, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.” In context of this chapter, this seems to mean that the Lord will keep him faithful, and although his enemies can kill the body, they cannot kill the soul (cf. Matt. 10:28). Paul’s salvation is secure in Christ. “To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Final greetings (vv. 19-22)

Paul takes his last opportunity to greet some old and dear friends: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus.” Onesiphorus himself may have died.

“Erastus” — possibly the man mentioned in Rom. 16:23 — “stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” Even Paul couldn’t heal everyone.

“Do your best to get here before winter.” Not only does it get cold in winter, it is difficult to travel, so if Timothy procrastinates, he might have to wait three more months, and that may be too late.

“Eubulus greets you, and so do Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers. The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.”

Things to think about

  • Is it possible for the Lord “to rescue Paul from every evil attack” by letting him be killed? Can I trust a God who lets evil get its way?

The Greeks had a Word for it: Καιρός

Greek had two main words for time. Sometimes they meant essentially the same thing, but sometimes they had different connotations. Chronos referred to a quantity of time, time that could be measured by a clock.

Kairos, the other word, could refer to a time that was significant in quality, a significance that went beyond the number of minutes or days. It was a season of opportunity, an occasion for a special event. In 2 Tim. 4:6, Paul said that the kairos had come for his departure. It was not just a date on the calendar, but a tremendously significant milestone in his life and ministry.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

10. Titus 1:1-16 - Leaders in Truth

In the first chapter of his letter to Titus, Paul describes the qualities of a good church leader. He warns that some people try to lead believers away from the truth. Even in the 21st century, Paul’s advice is still needed.


Paul begins by announcing his role and his purpose: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness…” (Titus 1:1).

In the Roman world, a slave in charge of the emperor’s business had a higher social status than many free people did. Paul, as slave to the ruler of the universe, had tremendous importance and status. He was sent by Christ as an apostle or official messenger with two major purposes: 1) to bring God’s people to faith and 2) to teach them truth to help them live godly lives.

Our beliefs and behavior are built on a solid foundation: They are “resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time” (v. 2). Our hope is more than a wishful thought — it is as secure as God himself. Our eternity is secure because God has power over time itself.

This promise of eternal life was announced in the gospel: “at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior” (v. 3). Paul here combines a term usually used for the Father with a term usually used for the Son, and it is not certain here which one he means.

After describing himself and his mission, Paul begins: “To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (v. 4). Titus was a Gentile (Gal. 2:3), but Paul calls him a “true son,” who faithfully continued Paul’s work. Earlier, Titus had successfully dealt with a difficult problem in Corinth (2 Cor. 7:6-7).

Qualities of a good leader

Paul then announces the purpose of his letter: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).

Titus already knew what Paul had told him, and he already knew the points Paul made in verses 1-4. But Paul includes these things in his letter because the letter would be read out loud in the churches in which Titus worked — and in this way the members in Crete would accept what Titus was doing, and then Titus could move on.

For the benefit of the congregation, Paul lists the characteristics of a good elder: “An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (v. 6).

If we take Paul too literally, we might think that elders must be married, or that they cannot be remarried even after death has released them from their vows (Rom. 7:1-3). If we read this as a list of legal requirements, then Paul himself could not be an elder! However, his purpose is more general — he is saying that elders, if married, should be faithful in marriage (in that society, mistresses were common).

Elders should also be responsible in their families, but we should not take this legalistically, either. One child who went astray 20 years ago would not automatically disqualify an otherwise well-respected leader.

“Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless — not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain” (v. 7). An elder or overseer (Paul uses the words interchangeably) should not be bossy, irritable or selfish. “Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined” (v. 8).

After this list of personal virtues, Paul briefly addresses the doctrinal needs: A church leader “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (v. 9). Elders must know the gospel and be able to pass it on accurately. They must teach the truth, and denounce the counterfeits.

False teachings

The believers in Crete needed good leaders because the truth was being distorted: “For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group” (v. 10). Paul’s greatest adversaries were Judaizers who taught that Gentiles should be circumcised and keep the laws of Moses (Acts 15:5Gal. 5:3).

“They must be silenced,” Paul writes. If they teach a false gospel, they should not be allowed to speak to the congregation — a good leader must be willing to exclude them (Rom. 16:17). Why be so strict? “Because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach — and that for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:11). Some false teachers want money; others want to bolster their ego. Either way, it is dishonest gain.

Paul then quotes “one of their own prophets” — Epimenides, who lived on Crete six centuries earlier: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (v. 12). This is a philosophical riddle: If Cretans are always liars, can Epimenides be telling the truth? Paul says, “This testimony is true.” Every culture has its own problems; the people of Crete had these.

Paul gives the solution: “Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth” (vv. 13-14). Titus is to rebuke the false teachers, so the members will be sound in the faith, so they will not be led away from the gospel of grace.

“To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure” (v. 15). This verse is a proverb that can apply to various situations. But in this context, it refers to Judaizers who declared all sorts of things “unclean.”

Even today, some overly zealous people see a problem under every bush, paganism in every custom. The problem is in the eye of the beholder, Paul says: “Both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (vv. 15-16).

Paul uses strong words, because he was passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who teach legalism, he says, have a tragically distorted concept of God. By their focus on works, they show that they do not trust him to be the author of love and grace — God our Savior.

Things to think about

  • If time had a beginning, will it ever end? (v. 2)
  • Why does Paul list personal virtues before doctrinal accuracy? (v. 9)
  • When churches today designate elders, what additional qualities do they consider? (v. 19)
  • In a culture that values freedom of speech, should anyone be silenced? (v. 11)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

11. Titus 2:1-10 - Making Grace Look Good

In the second chapter of Titus, Paul tells us that people often judge the gospel by the way we live. Do we make the gospel look good, or do we give people a reason to complain? The gospel teaches grace, and grace teaches us something about the way we live.

Self-control: a good example

Paul tells Titus, “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” He then describes teachings that are reliable: “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance” (Titus 2:1-2). Titus is working with believers who need some guidance about their behavior.

Paul begins with three virtues praised by Greek philosophers—not going to extremes, acting respectably and having self-control. He then gives three virtues important in Christianity: having right beliefs, showing love, and maintaining these qualities even when it is difficult.

For women, Paul gives slightly different advice: “Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good” (v. 3). These vices are not typically associated with women today, and Paul could easily point these teachings at men—they are appropriate for all Christians.

Paul expects older women to be able to teach: “They can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands” (vv. 4-5). Paul does not tell Titus to teach the young women directly, but he asks the older women to lead them.

Paul lists a number of roles that women had in first-century society and then explains why Christian women should perform them: “so that no one will malign the word of God.” Christianity has several beliefs and practices that unbelievers do not like, and Christians cannot do everything that unbelievers want. But in many customs, Christians can conform, and this is what Paul wants.

If people are going to criticize, let it be for essential matters, not for unnecessary differences. If we break social customs, people will be more skeptical about everything we say, so we want to keep our differences to a minimum. Paul is concerned about how our behavior might affect the gospel.

“Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good” (vv. 6-7). Titus will teach not just by words, but also in what he does. Even his style of teaching is important: “In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned.” Why? Because our reputation as bearers of the gospel is important: “So that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” People will disagree with our beliefs, but we do not want to give any extra offense.

Paul then comments on one more social group: “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (vv. 9-10).

Paul is advising believers to perform their social roles well—he is not necessarily saying that those social roles are good. But we can with some modification apply what Paul says to employment situations today. Believers should perform their jobs well, being cooperative, trustworthy, and respectful to everyone.

Why? To make the gospel attractive, so that people will be more likely to listen to what we say about Jesus. The way we live, the way we work, the way we treat our families and neighbors, all make a difference in how receptive people will be to the message we share.

Things to think about

  • What virtues are most needed in our culture? (v. 2)
  • What behaviors today, although not sins, might cause people to despise the gospel? (v. 5)
  • Paul said that slaves should submit (v. 9). Was it therefore wrong for Christians to try to abolish slavery in the 19th century?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

12. Titus 2:11-14 - Grace-Based Behavior

Paul then gives a theological reason for teaching people to be well-behaved: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (v. 11). Or the Greek could also be translated, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (NRSV). Not everyone has seen it yet, but salvation is available to everyone on the basis of grace.

And what does this grace do? “It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (v. 12). Grace—if we understand it correctly— teaches us to reject sin and to do good. As children of God, we want to be like the Son of God, but we cannot do this on our own strength. It is only by God’s grace that we are enabled to do what he wants.

This is a good way to live “in this present age,” but the rewards are not necessarily seen in this age. Therefore, “we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (v. 13). Here, Jesus is clearly called God, and Paul says that we await his return.

What did Jesus do? He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (v. 14). He redeemed us from sin. But Christ has a purpose for us beyond that: He wants to purify us, to eliminate the sin, and to create in us a desire for good behavior.

Something to think about

  • Grace means that we are not penalized for sin; how then does it teach us to avoid sin? (v. 12)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

13. Titus 2:15-3:3 - Ready to Do Good

Paul summarizes his point: “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (v. 15). Jesus wants people who are eager to do good, so Titus, as a messenger of Christ, should encourage good behavior and speak out against bad behavior. He should not do anything that would cause people to despise him, because they would then despise the Savior he represented.

As Titus reads this letter to his congregation, Paul is also speaking to them: “Titus is going to have to correct you on some of your behavior. But he is simply doing what I would have done, and doing what grace tells you, if you are willing to hear what it says.” In the same way today, we should not despise those who exhort us to resist sin and do good.

Doing good is good — but not good enough

Paul left Titus on the island of Crete to organize the newly planted churches there. But Titus was not a permanent pastor — he would soon have to move on. What was he supposed to teach on this temporary assignment? Paul gives some final advice in chapter 3.

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (3:1). As Paul explained in chapter 2, good behavior puts the gospel in a good light. Although the gospel says that our Lord is Jesus Christ (not Caesar), we do not want officials to think that the gospel tells people to disrupt society.

Christians should “slander no one,” Paul says. “Be peaceable and considerate, and…show true humility toward all” (verse 2). For many believers, Paul was asking for a big change in their behavior. He explains in verse 3: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.”

In some ways this list is a mirror image of the good qualities Paul wants Titus to teach. Be obedient, even though you used to be disobedient. Be peaceable, even though you used to hate one another. We were once foolish and ill-tempered, Paul says — implying that we are not that way anymore.

What caused the change in our lives? It was Jesus.

Something to think about

  • We should be law-abiding citizens who do good (v. 1). Is there ever a time when we should disobey the law?

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

14. Titus 3:4-7 - Saved by God's Mercy

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (verses 4-5). God’s love appeared to us in the form of Jesus (Rom. 5:8), and he saved us not because we deserved it, but because of his mercy and grace.

We were not living a righteous life, but even if we were, those righteous things would not be good enough to save us. We are saved by God’s mercy, not by anything we could ever do to earn it.

“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” He did not save us through a physical washing, but by a spiritual washing and renewal. The word “washing” is an allusion to baptism, suggesting that our physical baptism symbolizes the rebirth that comes from the Holy Spirit.

God poured the Holy Spirit on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (verses 6-7). We are saved by God the Father, working through the Son and Holy Spirit.

We are justified by grace — put right with God — as his gift to us (and as Paul explains elsewhere, we receive it by faith). The result is that we become inheritors of eternal life, which gives us tremendous hope and confidence about our future. But the Bible also says that we have eternal life now, in this age (John 6:47). We have it as a down payment of much more yet to come.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

15. Titus 3:8-15 - Care to Do What Is Good

“This is a trustworthy saying,” Paul notes. We can be sure that God saves us by his mercy, not by our works. He then adds, “I want you to stress these things…” (verse 8). Titus should stress the Holy Spirit, grace and eternal life.

Why? “So that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” When we realize that God has saved us by his mercy, we should respond with changes in our behavior. Sin caused the death of our Savior, and we do not want to participate in behavior that caused his death.

So we trust in God alone, but we also strive to do good works. We have been saved for that purpose (Ephesians 2:10). Good works cannot save us, but they are still good, and they are characteristic of people who trust God. God’s people are devoted to doing good; they are eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14). Grace leads us to a better life. “These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”

Something to avoid

As part of his closing comments for Titus, Paul warns, “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (verse 9). Many of us have experienced “quarrels about the law” — debates about whether this or that is required or forbidden. If we try to base our salvation on keeping laws, we will inevitably end up arguing about which laws apply, about definitions of what is restricted, and whether there are any exceptions.

Debates like that miss the point. They are useless, because salvation is not based on the law. We should not waste our time with arguments about things that don’t really matter.

However, if people are convinced that laws are important, they are rarely willing to drop the argument. So Paul gives Titus some pastoral advice: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (verse 10). If the person can’t drop the subject, if he is stirring up trouble in the congregation by preaching salvation by works, then he should be avoided.

If someone says, You have to keep these laws in order to be saved, then that person is usually attempting to divide the congregation — he is saying that it’s not enough to trust in Christ. If the person won’t stop preaching this error, a division is unavoidable, and Titus can minimize the severity of that division by making it early. The person should not be allowed into the congregation to cause more trouble.

“You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (verse 11). He preaches that people will be saved or condemned by their works, and such a person will be judged by his works. By his own standard, he will be condemned. Divisive behavior is the opposite of what God wants.

Paul closes, as ancient letters often did, with some notes about personal contacts and travel plans: “As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there” (verse 12). Titus’s assignment as interim pastor would soon be up. Paul wanted to spend the winter with him in western Greece.

“Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need” (verse 13). They were probably the ones who carried the letter to Titus, on their way to somewhere else.

Paul then repeats an important theme: “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives” (verse 14). If people work for their food and stay out of trouble, that is good (1 Thess. 4:11).

“Everyone with me sends you greetings. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all” (v. 15).

Things to think about

  • People who are saved by grace should be eager to do good (v. 8). Why are some Christians not devoted to good works?
  • When can people have erroneous beliefs without being divisive? (v. 10)

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD

16. Philemon 1-21 - A Slave as a Brother

Some scholars have read Paul’s letter to Philemon as sowing the seeds of abolition, as suggesting that all Christian slavemasters ought to view slaves as members of the family, and should therefore free them all. Other scholars have read this same letter as saying that Christians who find runaway slaves ought to return them to their owners.

Some people today are embarrassed that Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and he did not directly tell slave-owners to free all their slaves. They think that Paul was far too soft on the evil of slavery.

The same letter can be viewed in different ways, depending on the point of view you are coming from – but slaves in the first century apparently were not too troubled by this. They accepted Christianity quite readily, even if it did not mean their freedom. They were happy with the spiritual benefits even if there were no social or economic benefits to go with it.

Introductory material

Verse 1 says: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker…” (NRSV throughout). This is the way first-century letters normally began. This is the way that modern letters begin, too, if we count the information on the envelope: the return address tells us who is writing, and then it says who it is being sent to.

This letter is from both Paul and Timothy. In many of his letters, Paul includes the names of his co-workers as co-authors. In this case, Timothy may have had a lot to do with the way the letter is written. Paul could be quite forceful, but this letter is tactful and subtle, perhaps well-suited to Timothy, who seems to have been of a more gentle nature.

Paul introduces himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. In some letters, he calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ, but that may have been too much irony for this particular letter. But he is a prisoner, apparently in jail.

There are three possible locations for this imprisonment: Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus. Acts tells us he spent a couple of years imprisoned in Caesarea, and a couple of years in Rome, so those are possible locations. But it is hard to imagine a runaway slave going all the way from Colossae to Caesarea. The scenario is more plausible if Paul is jailed in Ephesus. The problem is that the Bible never mentions Paul being jailed in Ephesus. David deSilva writes,

Acts is silent about such an imprisonment, but Acts, like all history, is selective in the story it tells. Paul refers to some ordeal in Ephesus (see 1 Cor 15:322 Cor 1:8-9) and speaks of suffering imprisonments in the plural (even before his Caesarean and Roman imprisonments) in 2 Corinthians 6:511:23. A run-in with the authorities in Ephesus resulting in a brief imprisonment is therefore a plausible scenario.[1]

An imprisonment in Ephesus also makes more sense for verse 22, where Paul says that he wants to stay in Philemon’s home. Someone who gets out of jail in Rome would hardly be expected to go to a small inland city in Asia, especially when he has already announced plans to go to Spain.[2] But it would be plausible for someone who was leaving Ephesus. However, the exact location of writing doesn’t affect the way we interpret the letter.

Verse 2 continues the address of the letter: “to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” Apphia and Archippus are probably in Philemon’s family, perhaps as wife and son, perhaps leaders in the church, though we cannot be sure. Nor does it matter, for they do not play any further role in the story.

It is significant that a church meets in Philemon’s house – this means that Philemon is wealthy enough not only to have a slave, but also to have a house large enough for a small church to meet in. He was in the upper class, probably in the top 5 or 10 percent.

It is also noteworthy that this letter is written to the whole church; the letter would be read to all the members. This could put Philemon on the hot seat: not only is Paul asking him to free a slave, but also everyone knows that Paul is asking him to do this, and everyone will be able to see whether he does. It is an acknowledgement that Philemon’s actions affect the whole community. Gorman writes, “Paul wants Philemon, as a believer and especially as a church leader, to know that the subject of this letter is not a personal matter.”[3] The relationship of one member to another can affect the entire church. deSilva writes,

Paul turns what appears to be a private matter into a household matter in the broader sense of the Christian family. The local community of faith will become a witness to Paul’s request and thus also to Philemon’s response. Philemon cannot act privately in the matter of Onesimus, who now is part of the larger household of God and not merely Philemon’s household.[4]

Paul writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3). The normal Greek greeting in a letter was charein, greetings. Paul always changes this to a similar Greek word, charis, meaning grace, and he adds the typical Jewish greeting, shalom in Hebrew, eirene in Greek, meaning peace – and he notes that both grace and peace come to us from God. In his other letters, he usually mentions Jesus Christ as an equal source of that grace and peace.

Introductory prayer

A typical Greek letter, even a “secular” one, usually began with some sort of prayer. Paul follows this custom, and his introductory prayers are not a formality – they are tailored to the content of the letter. Here he writes, in verses 4-5, “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” Paul will ask Philemon to exercise that love for one saint in particular, and Philemon will need some faith to do so.

Verse 6: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” Paul isn’t talking about evangelism when he mentions “sharing your faith.” The phrase here most likely has a passive sense, not an active one: Philemon shares his faith with the people who have faith. We all have that in common; we share the same beliefs, and the fact that Philemon has the same faith as other believers should be “effective” – it should have results in his life in the way that he treats other believers (Onesimus, in this case).

And Paul hints at some “good” that Philemon may soon have opportunity to do – not just for another believer, but for Christ himself. Our faith in Christ should affect the way that we treat other people who have that same faith (see all the commands in the New Testament about the way we treat “one another”), and the way we treat them is in some sense the way that we treat Jesus Christ himself (see Matthew 25).

Paul has also been blessed because of what Philemon has done for others: “I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother” (v. 7). Paul will refer to “refreshing the heart” again in this letter. At this point it in the letter, it is a seed that will come to life a bit later. Paul wants Philemon to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.

Getting to the purpose

In verse 8, Paul gets to the business of his letter: “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty…” Paul was normally bold enough to issue commands, but in this letter he is content to drop strong hints. He is dealing with a touchy issue, and he wants Philemon to make his own decision, not just follow orders.

Also, if Paul issues commands, he is acting like a slaveowner, a behavior he wants Philemon to stop.[5] He wants Philemon to give up some of his customary rights, so Paul is willing to set an example for him by giving up some of his own.[6] Nevertheless, Paul is hinting that Philemon has a duty, something he ought to do as a result of his faith in Christ.[7]

He writes: “Yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (v. 9). The love here is apparently Philemon’s love for Paul. Paul adds a little emotional pathos by mentioning that he is an old man in prison. He is powerless, asking for a little pity. If Philemon loves Paul, he will respond.

Paul’s appeal or request is seen in verse 10: “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Onesimus was a common name for a slave, for it means “useful.” (Slaves were commonly given new names when they were sold.) This man has now become a Christian.

We do not know how it happened that Onesimus came into contact with Paul. Was it accidental, or did Onesimus seek Paul out on purpose? Would a runaway slave hang around a prison? It seems more likely to me that Onesimus looked for Paul on purpose.

Social custom may explain why. A slave was not legally considered a runaway if he went to a mutual friend, to seek that friend’s intercession with the owner. Onesimus may have committed a huge blunder (v. 18 may hint at some problem), and he wanted Paul to act as a mediator to help restore him without too much penalty. So Onesimus went to Paul, heard the gospel, came to faith in Christ, and began helping Paul. No matter what the past history, Onesimus is not legally a runaway – he is in the category of a slave seeking mediation through a friend of the owner. But in this legal status, he cannot stay with the friend forever – he must eventually be sent back to the owner.

Perhaps with a little rhetorical exaggeration, Paul admits that Onesimus had not been a very good slave. “Formerly he was useless[8] to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me” (v. 11).

He is useful to Paul, but it is not clear how he is useful to Philemon. Perhaps Paul is speaking of the help that Onesimus has given to Paul, and Paul is counting that as if it came from Philemon, and Onesimus has been useful to Philemon by giving Paul the help that Philemon would have done if he had been there (v. 13). That’s a bit convoluted, isn’t it? But it’s part of the psychology of the letter: Paul is praising Onesimus as much as he can so that Philemon finds it easier to grant his request.

Verse 12: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.” Paul calls Onesimus his heart (Greek splanchna, meaning internal organs, a metaphor for deep emotions), and this probably has a function later in the letter. Paul is sending him back, for Philemon is the legal owner.

(It bothers some people today that Paul sent Onesimus back, as if he was still property belonging to Philemon. However, it could have been counterproductive for Paul to say that Christianity required the abolition of slavery. It would also have been problematic for Onesimus to remain a fugitive; it was better to clear up his legal status. Slaves were 20 to 25 percent of the population, and universal emancipation would have meant social and economic chaos, and most of the slaves would not have ended up any better for it.[9] If Paul had said that Christianity was against slavery, it could have hindered the gospel among the upper class, given slaves ideas of rebellion, and caused more government persecution against the gospel. For whatever reason, Paul treaded carefully when it came to slavery.)

In verse 13, Paul reveals what he really wants – or at least it seems to me that this is the clearest statement of what he wants: “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel.” Paul wanted Onesimus to stay with Paul, helping him in his imprisonment (which would include bringing him food, for example, since first-century prisons did not provide food). Philemon could not do it (he would have if he could, Paul implies) because he lived too far away, but euphemistically speaking, Onesimus did it for him, in his place.

“But I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced” (v. 14). Paul wanted to keep Onesimus, but Onesimus did not belong to him, and he didn’t want to keep him without permission (is this a hint?).

So Paul again says that Philemon has the opportunity to do a good deed (that is, letting Onesimus stay with Paul). This is what Philemon has the opportunity to do voluntarily, rather than being ordered to do it. Marshall writes, “Paul hoped that it might be possible for Onesimus to spend some time with him as a missionary colleague…. If that is not a request for Onesimus to join Paul’s circle, I do not know what more would need to be said.”[10]

Supporting discussion

“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while…” (v. 15). The reason for the “separation” may have been that Onesimus ran away, but Paul tactfully puts this in the passive. By doing this, he suggests that the “separation” may have been God’s doing—Onesimus was temporarily absent so that he could be restored more permanently—perhaps not Onesimus’s original intention, but that’s the way it is working out now.

The purpose: “so that you might have him back forever.” Does this mean that Paul wants Onesimus to stay in Colosse with Philemon? I think the other verses in the letter hint at something different, and I think that here Paul means that Onesimus will be restored to Philemon in a more figurative sense, as it says in verse 16: “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” Paul is saying that Philemon should receive this good-for-nothing slave (to paraphrase v. 11) as a beloved brother, not as a slave. In other words, he should be freed. Don’t treat him like a runaway slave—treat him like a long-lost brother!

This is a rather tall order, a difficult request, and it is no wonder that Paul deals with it so delicately. If Philemon frees the runaway, what will his other slaves think? They might think: “Let’s get our freedom by pretending to believe in Christ.” What will the neighboring slaveowners think? “If Christianity means having to free your slaves, I don’t want my slaves to hear about it.” Paul seems to be putting Philemon in a tough spot.

Onesimus is a brother “especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16b). Onesimus is Paul’s son and Paul’s brother; now Paul is asking Philemon to treat him as a brother not just spiritually, in the church, “in the Lord,” but also “in the flesh,” in physical life. Achtemeier et al. write,

The reference to receiving Onesimus as a brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16) may indicate Paul’s desire that Onesimus be freed, so that he can be Philemon’s brother both within the Christian community (“in the Lord”) and in secular society (“in the flesh”).[11]

In other words, some social benefits ought to go along with the change in spiritual status. When people are equal in the Lord, believers should treat them equal in the flesh, too. (A principle that supports gender equality, too.) Our theology should affect our ethics.

“So if you consider me your partner,” Paul asks, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17). “Partner” is the Greek koinōnos, someone who shares in something. If you are with me in the faith, Paul is saying, treat him like you would treat me.

Let’s put this in a modern context. Imagine that you are a business owner. One of your worst employees has taken the company truck without permission and wrecked it. He goes to your pastor, gets converted, and your pastor then asks you to give the guy his job back, give him a raise, and even to treat him as an honored guest. In first-century culture, Paul is asking for more than that!

“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (v. 18). Most scholars believe that this is a polite way of admitting that Onesimus wronged Philemon in some way—perhaps by being a lazy worker, perhaps by stealing something to help him on his unauthorized journey, or perhaps it was an accidental destruction of property, something that caused Onesimus to take off in the first place.

Whatever it is, Paul says, I’ll pay for it, and he signs it in his own handwriting to make it a legal note of debt: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it” (v. 19). I’ll pay for that truck, the pastor says.

But then he reminds Philemon that Philemon already owes Paul a great deal: “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” Whatever I owe you, Paul says, you owe me even more, because I have fathered you in the faith. DeSilva puts it in the terminology of the social customs of the time:

Paul claims to be Philemon’s patron on the basis of bringing Philemon the message of salvation…. Paul claims authority to command Philemon’s obedience as Paul’s client, a social inferior whose response of service may be commanded on the basis of Paul’s benefaction of salvation.”[12]

Financially, Philemon was probably a patron, but spiritually, Paul was the patron. So, no matter how much I ask for, Paul seems to imply, you ought to do it. Paul here has moved from being a helpless old man in prison and started to act like a person in authority. He is the “father” in the family of faith, and as head of the family he has authority over both Philemon and Onesimus. But he says he is not mentioning this. Luke Timothy Johnson writes:

In the realm of the Christian oikomene [household] (which includes not only Philemon’s immediate household, but all the Christian households in the larger Pauline communities), Paul possesses the authority of a “head.” This means, in effect, that Paul has authority over Philemon’s own household, including Onesimus, thus trumping the Greco-Roman social hierarchy of obligation…. Paul is Philemon’s patron and “head” in the Christian household, so he did not have to return the runaway slave. But while Philemon is now the recipient of Paul’s benefaction, he can again become the great benefactor of Paul’s mission by “giving” Onesimus to Paul.[13]

Similarly, Christians today are asked by Christ to make personal sacrifices—but we are never asked to give more than what we ourselves have been given. deSilva points toward a modern application of this story:

Paul removes a major obstacle to unbegrudging generosity, namely, the excuse that we may have been injured in some way by the person in need. Paul tells Philemon not to withhold kindness from Onesimus because of any loss he may have suffered on Onesimus’s account, but rather to symbolically charge that to Paul’s own account. Similarly, we are challenged to measure other people’s “debts” to us against our debt to God, to forgive as freely as we have been forgiven, to share and help as generously as we have been helped and sustained.[14]

Whatever obligations people have against us, whatever wrongs they have done against us, we should charge that to Jesus’ account, and remember that our debt to him is far greater that what he asks of us.

So Paul asks again in verse 20: “Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.” He wants a benefit, he says, and this is what it is: Refresh my heart, my inner organs. This may be a figure of speech, a general phrase, but even if it is, I think Paul is using it tongue in cheek, wanting Philemon to catch his allusion. He has already called Onesimus his heart – here he seems to be asking Philemon to restore him, or send him back.

“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21). Earlier, Paul indicated that he would not command Philemon (v. 8), but here he implies that there is a command that should be obeyed—in context, the command to refresh Paul’s heart—and to do even more than that, whatever that may be. He is indicating that he has been beating around the bush rather than coming right out and saying what he wants.

David Garland suggests another point of application: “We may not be able to undo all the injustice in the world, but in our local neighborhood we can stand with those individuals who are oppressed” (366). Paul could not eliminate slavery in entirety, but he could eliminate it for one person. He did what he could, rather than fretting about what he could not – and he did it by 1) showing that the gospel leads to social equality and 2) appealing to principles of the faith, not by issuing blunt commands.

Closing comments

He ends with one last request in verse 22: “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Travel plans were often part of the closing comments in a letter, so Paul’s comment could be seen as a routine note, in this case also expressing confidence that Paul will soon be released from jail.

This request also says that Paul wants the friendship between them to continue. He does not want to impose on that friendship, but he does have an important request to make of his friend.

In verses 23-24, Paul closes with the greetings that typically ended a first-century letter (though Paul has more companions than most letter-writers do). This seems to be his whole ministry team at the time he wrote: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”


Did Philemon do what he was asked? Walter Elwell and Robert Yarbrough note the following:

An ancient inscription discovered at Laodicea, a village very near Colossae, was dedicated by a slave to the master who freed him. The master’s name: Marcus Sestius Philemon. We cannot be certain that this is the same Philemon as the one Paul addressed, but the identical names from the same locale do raise the possibility.[15]

Another interesting bit of history: Around the year A.D. 110, Ignatius of Antioch mentions that the bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus. Since Onesimus was a name generally given to slaves, it is likely that the bishop of Ephesus in 110 was a former slave. We cannot be certain that this is the same Onesimus, but it is possible. Garland notes, “If Onesimus were twenty years old when Philemon was written, he could have been seventy at this time.”[16] What Paul did in this short letter may have had repercussions in church history.

Paul closes with a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (v. 25). And that is a good benediction here. May God’s grace be with your spirit—and may his grace radiate out from you to bless everyone you meet. May the spirit of liberation, emancipation, and equality bring blessings to your relationships in Christ.

[1] David deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament (InterVarsity, 2004), 668.

[2] Similarities with Colossians (cf. Col. 1:14:9-1017) make most scholars conclude that Philemon lives in or near Colosse.

[3] Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord (Eerdmans, 2004), 456.

[4] deSilva, 669. If Philemon decided not to free the slave, he probably wouldn’t have the letter read in church, either. But if he did decide to free the slave who had undesirable behavior, the letter would help explain the slaveowner’s strange action.

[5] “Slavery is a system of bossing people around” (Paul Jewett, quoted in David E. Garland, Colossians, Philemon. NIV Application Commentary [Zondervan, 1998], 367).

[6] “Paul himself is imitating Christ by denying himself the use of a certain status and power…. The text echoes similar refusals to use apostolic privilege (1 Thess. 2:72 Thess. 3:7-91 Cor. 9, esp. v. 19, all of which in turn are based on texts about Christ’s self-denial (e.g., Phil. 2:6-82 Cor. 8:9)” (Gorman, 465).

[7] “Conformity to the pressures of authority is not what God seeks, but conformity to the mind of Christ…. If a pastoral leader must use authority to coerce rather than facilitate transformation, he or she may win a minor victory at the expense of the larger campaign for Christlikeness” (deSilva, 683).

[8] Paul is playing a little on words. Onesimus means “useful,” but Onesimus was useless as a slave. “Useless” is the Greek word achrēstos, and indeed Onesimus had been a-christos – without Christ. But now that he is in Christ, he has become useful (euchrēstos).

[9] First-century slavery was not as oppressive as American slavery was — some slaves had white-collar jobs; others were blue-collar skilled workers. Emancipation was common upon age 30 or so. Some people actually sold themselves into slavery because the slaves had some economic security, whereas freedmen had to scramble to find jobs day by day. However, some first-century slaves did have it bad — forced to work in mines, fields or as oarsmen on ships —but those jobs were usually given to slaves who had already misbehaved. “The number of papyri dealing with runaway slaves suggests that it was not a benign institution” (Garland, 349).

[10] Marshall et al., 146-147.

[11] Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Maryanne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2001), 423.

[12] deSilva, 671, 673.

[13] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Fortress, 1999), 388-389.

[14] deSilva, 676.

[15] Walter Elwell and Robert Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 323.

[16] Garland, 306.

Author: Michael Morrison, PhD