Paul’s Letters to Timothy (1)

Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy.

Here the complete reading of the First Letter of Paul to Timothy can be found.

Formal Greetings and Personal Relations

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the commissioning of our God and Saviour, and of Christ Jesus (Himself), our hope; to Timothy, true child in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

When we read the New Testament’s “file” of Paul’s letters, we will note that he begins all of them with initial greetings that are formally expressed. He does not just give a heading: “Paul’s instructions for how to conduct the work of Good News proclamation”. In this formal opening he identifies himself as well as the person who has commissioned him. As well, he also identifies the recipients of the letter. In this letter he explains his relationship to those addressed in it. These two letters to Timothy, along with his letters to Titus and Philemon, have a personal intensity that may prod us to wonder why he would begin them in such a formal tone. Why the formality? Are not these letters to people with whom he is already on friendly terms?

         We might even say that these initial greetings are, for a letter, the equivalent to a handshake or a hug. The problem with such a distinction between “formality” and “friendship” is that a handshake does not have to mean cold formality, any more than a hug has to mean warmth and depth of sentiment. Likewise, having read the contents of these letters, we can plumb the depths of Paul’s affection for Timothy, Titus and Philemon while also sensing something of the reciprocal respect held by these recipients of his letters. Having said all that, we might also begin to wonder whether these opening lines should prod us to think more deeply about the conventional distinctions we often entertain between formal address and a more personal kind of interaction.

         Now of course, Paul is also expecting that these friends will read his letter and show them to others. In that sense they retain a formal character because they are not just private but are intended to be public, to be shared with others in the church fellowship. These are not “for your eyes only” letters.

         The New Testament “file” of Paul’s correspondence is confessed by the church of Jesus Christ to be part of the apostolic proclamation of the Good News and thereby God’s word written for us. We can also note how Paul’s “habit” of commencing his letter in a formal way coincides with his polite conclusion as he takes his leave at the end of this communication. And here too we confront God’s word, statements integrally part of the Apostolic Good News in their epistolary form.

         Why begin this examination of Paul’s letters to Timothy by drawing attention to this formal aspect of the letter’s structure? By so doing we are reminded that a letter, as a means of communication, is an artefact of human responsibility. A letter’s “task” is to give expression to one or other dimension(s) of human responsibility. Before letters were invented as a form of communication there needed to be a complex process that enabled spoken communication to be translated into what was written down. And so writing implements, writing tablets and parchment and ink had to be developed. The development of such artefacts facilitated the expansion of communication, and so the earth’s resources had to be cultivated and harvested in particular ways if letter writing was to be facilitated. Writing implements had to be designed, surfaces had to be furnished that could retain symbolic inscription and, in time, other media such as inks had to be perfected so that messages could taken on the form of letters. Envelopes and seals had to be invented. Then of course for us to send and receive “letters” we needed the development of transport and travel. Letters travel. They go from one person in one place to another person in another place, and letters these days seem to be on the verge of going beyond envelopes, stamps and postmen. These days, letters are also written and conveyed electronically.

         When we write a letter these days we can review what we have written and delete our mistakes and make what is written to read more exactly with what we intend according to the rules of correct grammar. Paul was not writing with a computer or even a typewriter. It seems that for at least some of his letters he had to dictate his words to be written down by an assistant. Then, when the letter was written and ready to be “sent”, Paul had to find a courier who would take the letter to its intended recipient.

         These comments are to give a brief outline of some of the features of letter-writing in Paul’s day. We should not exclude these from our reflections when we give attention to what Paul has written. They are also the conditions presupposed by these letters. And so they were part of the everyday “way of life” in which Paul and Timothy lived in those days. By writing his letters, by using them as a means of proclaiming the Good News that Jesus had commanded him to take to the nations, Paul was involved in “opening up” the life of Timothy and the others he addressed. He was part of this “opening up” by passing on the message of God’s redeeming love. And his letters were also part of this, so crucial for our own understanding of this “way of life” that takes up the cross and follows Christ Jesus.

         Clearly, Paul was not the first to use letters to accomplish some worthwhile purpose, but the fact that he did so reminds us of the way in which the Good News develops its impact upon the lives of those who attend to it. Indeed as we read this letter we will come across the taken-for-granted Pauline assumption that letter-writing as a creational means of developing our human responsibilities finds its true focus in Jesus Christ, the Person at the centre of Paul’s letter-writing. Jesus Christ is confessed as the One in whom all letter-writing makes sense, because He is the One in whom all human responsibility and communication “hangs together”.

         Christianity is not the Kingdom of God. Wherever the Christian way of life has come to historical expression it has found its coherence as a signpost to the Sovereign Rule of God over all that He has made. The Kingdom of God is proclaimed to us today by an announcement of the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. It is in His death, resurrection and ascension that the Kingdom is inaugurated in our lives. And so that is why it is so important that the Good News be proclaimed in our lives to all creation, to every creature, to all the peoples of the world.

         We began this discussion by drawing attention to the warmth of Paul’s personal relationship with Timothy. That warmth is in no way contradicted by the formal matter at the letter’s beginning, and the customary style with which he begins and ends his epistles. This is particularly noticeable in the letters written to specific persons – Timothy, Titus, Philemon. The other letters of Paul’s New Testament “file” – to the churches at Rome, Corinth, across Galatia, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica – remind us of Paul’s commitment to his commission to join historically in Jesus’ important project – proclaiming the Good News to the nations.

         So then, does this observation about Paul’s customary style, his formal opening and greeting, have anything to say to us today with the problems we face today in living and maintaining a “Christian way of life”? Our modern tendency to see in “formality” the extinguishment of personal friendship is certainly not confirmed by Paul’s way of writing to his co-workers, even if he is their “team leader”. Our inherited political concept of authority in which “personal relationships” and “becoming personally involved” is strictly separated from organisational responsibility is actually put into doubt by Paul’s epistolary style. Of course, we could read our own latter-day dogmatic assumptions into the text but at this point we would have to say that Paul does not teach such a rigid distinction.

         It would be a significant stretch of the meaning of the text for us to read him saying, “Whenever you write letters, Timothy, you should adopt the formal tone I have adopted in my opening.” That would be to seriously mis-read the letter.

         Now, of course, Timothy may have written letters just like Paul has done and we can expect that he had thereby also learned from Paul something about letter-writing and how he should organise the contents of his letters, how he should frame its greetings and its closing remarks.

         My suggestion is that we read this opening as Paul’s recognition that he is indeed in the process of writing a letter and that as a letter it should follow conventional and readily recognizable letter-writing protocols. The development of cultural technologies and artefacts that enable the writing of a letter is evidence of God’s creation opening up under the stewardship of God’s image-bearers. Letter-writing and letters have their place in God’s kingdom and so Paul writes as he does to commend a life-perspective in which everything we do takes places within the creational context of our God-given responsibilities.

         Of course, one cannot properly understand the Good News without noting that the preaching thereof put John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles, on a collision course with the Roman occupiers, the Herodian quislings and the Jewish religious authorities. And in that sense, Paul shows, by what he writes, that he knows that such letters with their proclamation has a political challenge of greatest significance. In fact, he refers to his chains that bespeak the political accusation that he, by proclaiming the Kingdom of God, has committed treason against Caesar.

         But we should keep in mind that what we have discussed indicates that the Good News did not only come at that political time. It burst upon the Mediterranean world, as we have noted, at a time in the history of technology. Writing had already developed. Parchment was a taken-for-granted part of studying and communicating in those times. There was pen and there was ink available for Paul to write these letters. The means of transportation had also been developed to some extend and would be mores in the future. Commerce, trade and travel were means by which it was possible to communicate between people of different languages.

         The New Testament discusses the way a distinctively “Christian “way of life” was made possible and opened itself up in various ways in the cultural and political context of the time. It describes for us how it arose amid the dominant cultural forms and processes that then prevailed. It instructs us of how those committed to this way of life refused to allow themselves to become just another Jewish sect – which was increasingly difficult anyway because of the persistent efforts of the Jewish religious and traditional leadership to suppress and, if possible, eradicate any such a zealot sectarian proclamation of a Messiah. And neither did it accommodate itself to the Roman Imperial system that implied the religious devotion to Caesar as a deity who, through the pious obedience of his subjects, would ensure that the Empire would hold together.

Sunday July 10, 2016 Midday (update 20.9.16)

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