November 22: 1 Timothy 3:16a

1 Timothy 3:16


The recent daily notes have focused on the “Christ hymns” in Philippians (2:6-11) and Colossians (1:15-20), the largest and most prominent of the poetic/hymnic confessional statements, regarding the person of Jesus Christ, that occur in the New Testament. As I have discussed, many commentators believe that these ‘hymns’ represent pre-existing works that were adapted and included by the New Testament authors (i.e., Paul in Philippians and Colossians). The evidence for such adaptation is far from certain, though I would say it is more likely in the case of the Philippians hymn than for the Colossians hymn, which more clearly reflects key Pauline concepts and phrasing.

In 1 Timothy 3:16, we have another “Christ hymn”. It has the common attributes: an initial relative pronoun, poetic phrasing, utilization of traditional vocabulary and terminology, and is rooted in the early kerygma with an emphasis on the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus (exaltation-Christology). The brevity and peculiar wording of 1 Tim 3:16 make it all the more likely that, in this instance, the author is indeed quoting or making use of an existing hymnic statement on the person of Christ.

Complicating the picture are the critical questions regarding the authorship of the letter. Many commentators consider the Pastoral letters to be pseudonymous, written by someone other than Paul. Differences in vocabulary and style, along with other factors, have led scholars to this conclusion. I believe that a distinction needs to be made between 2 Timothy, which (in my view) demonstrates many authentic features of Pauline style and emphasis, and 1 Timothy, for which I find considerably more evidence of unusual vocabulary and manner of expression that may be deemed atypical of Paul. In any case, the matter continues to be debated, and the issues can scarcely be resolved in a short set of notes. For the purpose of this study, I treat the authorship of 1 Timothy as an open question, allowing for the strong possibility that the work is pseudonymous, while at the same time not ruling out the evidence of the text itself (i.e., that it was written by Paul).

Actually, the initial words of 1 Tim 3:16 provide a significant piece of evidence against Pauline authorship—the use of the word eu)se/beia. The eu)seb– word group occurs rather frequently in the Pastoral letters (especially 1 Timothy), but not once in any of the (other) letters of Paul. Given the significance of the word-group for the instruction of Christian congregations, if Paul were the author of the Pastorals, it is indeed strange that he never once uses it in his (other) letters to churches (and their leaders). In point of fact, the word-group is rare in the New Testament as a whole; apart from the Pastoral letters, the words occur only in the book of Acts and 2 Peter. The noun eu)se/beia is used 8 times in 1 Timothy, and once in 2 Timothy (3:5) and Titus (1:1), respectively. The related verb eu)sebe/w is used once in 1 Timothy (5:4), and the adverb eu)sebw=$ in 2 Tim 3:12 and Titus 2:12. Thus, of the word-group, the noun eu)se/beia is most prominent in 1 Timothy, and is distinctive of the vocabulary of the letter.

The noun eu)se/beia signifies the good (i.e. proper) reverence that one should show, especially to God, or to anything regarded as divine and holy. It is thus more or less synonymous with a pious religious mind-set, or with religion generally, though it draws upon the specific idea, common to ancient religion, but noted particularly in Old Testament tradition, of the “fear of God”; in older English parlance, we might render eu)se/beia as “god(ly) fear”. The author’s use of this word is especially significant for our study, since the “Christ hymn” follows as an explanation of what true eu)se/beia is for believers in Christ. Here is how the matter is stated in verse 16:

“and (it) being counted as one (by us all), (how) great is (the) secret of (our) good reverence [eu)se/beia]…”

The adverb o(mologoume/nw$ is formed from a passive participle of the verb o(mologe/w (“give account as one”). This verb is used relatively frequently in the New Testament, emphasizing what believers acknowledge and confess together (i.e., “as one”), and/or what they should acknowledge; Paul uses it only rarely (cf. Rom 10:9-10), but it occurs twice in the Pastorals (1 Tim 6:12; Tit 1:16). The adverb here essentially means “what is acknowledged by all of us (i.e., all believers)”, and represents one of the very first Christian creedal statements—i.e., a definitive declaration of what “we believe”. It is the hymn that defines what all true believers should acknowledge, though doubtless the author assumes that common consent would also be given to the exclamation “(how) great is (the) secret of (our) eu)se/beia” as well. Yet, what he is really saying here is that the heart of our religion—i.e., what we as believers hold in faith—is a great and wonderful secret (musth/rion), something hidden from people at large and revealed only to believers in Christ. For more on this idea, cf. my earlier study on the word musth/rion in the New Testament.

Since the Christ-hymn follows, it is clear that the secret is Christological—that is, a revelation regarding the person of Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done. However, before proceeding to a study on the hymn itself, let us give further consideration to the context of 3:16 within the letter of 1 Timothy.

The main body of the letter is comprised of three sections (2:1-3:16; 4:1-5:2; 5:3-6:2), in which the author (indicated as Paul) gives practical instruction on how the Christian congregations should be governed. Our verse is part of a short transitional passage (3:14-16), between the first and second sections. The first section deals primarily with the role of individual believers (men and women) in the congregations, including the qualifications and duties of ministers. At 3:14, the author (‘Paul’) gives a personal encouragement to the minister (‘Timothy’) whom he is addressing, in which he makes an important ecclesiological statement. That is to say, in vv. 14-16 we have a statement that reveals the author’s understanding of the place and nature of “the Church” (h( e)kklhsi/a). Let us see how this declaration in vv. 14-15 leads into the hymn of v. 16:

“I write these (thing)s to you, hoping to come toward you in short (order), but, if I should be slow (in coming), (I write so) that you might have seen [i.e., might know] how it is necessary to turn (oneself) about in (the) house of God, which is the gathered out (assembly) [e)kklhsi/a] of the living God, (the) pillar and support of the truth.” (vv. 14-15)

The verb a)nastre/fw means “turn up, turn over, turn around”, which can be used in reference to a person’s regular behavior; in English, we might say “go about (one’s business)”. The verbal particle dei=, indicates what “is necessary”, i.e., how one must behave in the “house [oi@ko$] of God”. This reflects the traditional idiom of believers as the “house” (i.e. the Temple) of God, using the imagery of a building (with pillars and a foundation holding up the structure). Paul certainly makes good use of this motif (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 5:1; 6:16; also Eph 2:21), though it is hardly unique to his letters (Rev 3:12, etc).

What is especially distinctive of the house/temple image here in 1 Timothy is how it relates to the idea of the Church as a kind of holy repository where the truth is entrusted, to be guarded zealously by the ministers. This truth encompasses the entirety of the authoritative Christian tradition, handed down from the apostles (like Paul), to be preserved carefully within the local congregations. At the heart of this truth, located in the innermost shrine of the ‘Temple’, is the Christological statement, the revelation of the person and work of Christ, such as is expressed (in summary form) in the hymn of v. 16. This is called “the secret of (our) good reverence [eu)se/beia]”, an expression parallel (and largely synonymous) with “the secret of (our) trust [i.e. faith]” in verse 9. The term eu)se/beia, however, more properly summarizes the whole Christian religion, both our belief (pi/sti$) and our actions (pra/ci$) in the Community. Again the participial adverb o(mologoume/nw$ emphasizes what is acknowledged (and confessed) by all believers (together), with the implication that the dutiful minister will faithfully guard this belief. The central Christological character and substance of this belief is what the hymn (or hymn-fragment) in v. 16 expresses, and we will begin examining it in the next daily note.


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