Mission and Teaching
As we’ve seen in my previous post, mission is the foundational theme in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. These letters are predicated upon the ongoing mission of the early church of which Paul’s mission is an integral part. When Paul wrote these letters, that mission had already been progressing for about three decades. But now the apostolic era was slowly but surely coming to an end. What would happen after the death of the apostles (including Paul)? This was a crucial question for Christianity as a fledgling movement. After promising beginnings, would the movement continue to thrive? And what would be its foundation? While the apostles were present, they provided this foundation, but now they were about to pass from the scene. The answer to this question is this: the persons of the apostles would be replaced by the deposit of the apostolic teaching which people like Paul was passing on to his apostolic delegates and successors.
Trajectory of Teaching in the Bible
The theme of teaching, therefore, is closely connected to mission in the letters to Timothy and Titus and constitutes the second important theme in these letters. Now the passing on of teaching was by no means a new concept. In fact, there is a long trajectory spanning from (1) the giving of the law to (2) priests and Levites teaching the law to the people of Israel (Deut 33:10) to (3) parents in ancient Israel passing on the witness to God’s past deliverance and his requirements for his people to succeeding generations (Deut 6:4–9; Josh 4:6–7; Ps 78:5–8). We find the same principle at work in New Testament times, where Jesus gathers his twelve apostles, the representatives of the new messianic community, and teaches them for three and a half years. Then, after his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, he commissions them to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that he has commanded them (Matt 28:18–20). We also see how Jesus and the New Testament writers held the Old Testament Scriptures in the highest regard and grounded the gospel message in God’s promises to his people.
Teaching Terminology in the Letters to Timothy and Titus
In the letters to Timothy and Titus, the theme of teaching encompasses references to the “sound” or “healthy teaching,” “the truth,” “the faith,” “the Word of God,” and “the deposit.” What is more, Paul employs Scripture in several ways that are both strategic and significant and provides teaching concerning the nature of Scripture itself. In all these ways, Paul underscores the vital importance of teaching in his letters to Timothy and Titus, his apostolic delegates and successors. They are not merely to engage in mission by focusing on evangelism. They are to pass on the apostolic teaching faithfully to the next generation. They were not to innovate, or to improvise, or to make converts by telling them simply what they thought their prospective followers wanted to hear (2 Tim 4:1–2); they were to be faithful in passing on what they themselves received on good authority (2 Tim 2:2). This was no different from what Paul did when he preached the gospel message (1 Cor 15:3–4). In fact, in the ultimate analysis the gospel was not merely a human message; it was the gospel of none other than God himself (Rom 1:3).
The phrase “sound” or “healthy teaching” is distinctive to the letters to Timothy and Titus. In this way, Paul focuses on the positive effect of life-giving teaching. Sound teaching is not only wholesome and healthy itself, it also imparts healing and strength to those who hear and receive such teaching. As such, healthy teaching stands in contrast to “whatever else is contrary to healthy teaching” (1 Tim 1:10; cf. 2 Tim 2:18), namely, the heretical teaching espoused by false teachers. Both Timothy and Titus are to devote themselves to pass on the “healthy teaching” of the gospel, for their own benefit and that of their listeners (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1–2).
Not only is such teaching healthy, that is, imparting life and health to those who hear and obey it, it is also “the truth.” We live in an age where truth has fallen on hard times. All too often, we do things merely because they are expedient, pragmatic, or politically correct. But our anchor must be in biblical truth, and we should be agents of truth. If we are, we ultimately have nothing to fear. Just as Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” so the gospel is truth because it embodies the saving mission of our Lord and Savior who died, was buried, and raised to save us from our sin and to give us eternal life. The gospel is not a magic formula, nor is it merely a set of beliefs or a holy mantra. It is the truth about what God did—in the fullness of time, send his Son to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, “so that everyone who believes will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In 1 Tim 2:4, Paul states that God wants all (kinds of) people to be saved and come to “a knowledge of the truth.” Later, he refers to the church as “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Believers know the truth, while the false teachers are devoid of it (1 Tim 4:3; 6:5). God’s servants must rightly handle God’s word of truth, while the opponents have departed from it (2 Tim 2:15, 18). Bottom line: We don’t each choose our own truth; rather, we either accept or reject the truth—i.e., Jesus Christ—with which we are confronted.
The true, healthy teaching of the gospel is also glossed in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus as “the faith.” This shows that by the time of writing there had been accumulated a body of teaching that could be called “the faith.” Not that the existence of the term “the faith” in these letters proves that they were written by one of Paul’s followers after his death; the presence of this phrase in these letters does, however, suggest that they come at a later stage of Paul’s apostolic ministry. In addition, “the faith” can serve as a shorthand for Christianity. Among the instances of “the faith” in these letters are references to Timothy fighting the “good fight for the faith” (1 Tim 6:12; cf. 4:6) and deacons being called upon to hold onto the “mystery of the faith” (1 Tim 3:9). Older men must be “sound in the faith” (Titus 2:2), while the false teachers have “shipwrecked” it and are disqualified (1 Tim 1:19; 2 Tim 3:8). Anyone who doesn’t provide for his family has “denied the faith” (1 Tim 5:8). These instances of “the faith” in the letters to Timothy and Titus make clear that Christianity is inevitably tethered to a body of teaching that is grounded in apostolic teaching, which in turn is rooted in Old Testament teaching and the teaching of Jesus himself.
The Word, the Deposit
In addition to “healthy teaching,” “the truth,” and “the faith,” Paul also refers to teaching in terms of “the Word of God” or simply as “the Word,” as well as “the deposit,” or in form of various “trustworthy sayings.” Above all, Paul’s apostolic delegates are to preach “the Word,” as opposed to merely their own opinions or what they think their audience wants to hear (2 Tim 4:1–2). This imperative is as important today as it was in Paul’s day. Also, believers are to live in such a way that God’s Word is not dishonored (Titus 2:5). Also, Timothy, as Paul’s model disciple, is to “guard the (good) deposit” (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:14): just as we make a deposit in our bank account and expect our money to be there when we need it, Paul expects Timothy to keep his deposit (i.e., the apostolic teaching) faithfully and with great care and integrity.
Another unique feature of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are the five “trustworthy sayings” contained in those letters and only in those letters. Every one of these three letters has at least one such saying, typically introduced as, “The saying is trustworthy.” Most likely, these sayings reflect preformed traditions that Paul used. The sayings are as follows:
|1 Tim 1:15||“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”|
|1 Tim 3:1||“If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.”|
|1 Tim 4:8||“The training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”|
|2 Tim 2:11–13||“For it we died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he will also deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”
|Titus 3:4–7||“When the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us … through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
He poured out his Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.”
The Usefulness of Scripture
All these are trustworthy affirmations Paul affirms in his correspondence with his apostolic delegates. In addition, Paul also repeatedly cites Scripture, especially in 1 Tim 5:18 (Deut 25:4) and 2 Tim 2:19 (Num 16:5; Isa 26:13; see the chart in my BTCP commentary, pp. 398–99). This shows that Paul consciously saw himself as operating in continuation of the Old Testament teaching and that he grounded many aspects of his teaching in it. Paul’s high esteem for the Hebrew Scriptures is further underscored by passages where he explicitly teaches on the value of the Old Testament, most notably in 2 Tim 3:14–17: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of the “teaching” motif in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. Certainly, Paul took his responsibility of teaching the next generation extremely seriously, and so should we. Paul’s words in 2 Tim 2:2 epitomize this responsibility: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Therefore, mission and sound teaching must go hand in hand. In truth, evangelism and discipleship are inseparable. Every generation must be faithful to pass on the faith to the next generation rather than taking it for granted that they will continue in what they have experienced in their own family. This also underscores the importance of mentoring as life-on-life teaching. I have recently written an essay on discipleship in the letters to Timothy and Titus for a forthcoming volume on discipleship which I hope to share on this website in the future. In the meantime, thank you for joining me in this series on important themes in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. My next post will turn to God, Christ, and the Spirit, plus the salvation they provide.