“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 1 Tim 3:9, 16

The next two occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) to be discussed are found in 1 Timothy 3:9 and 16. The Pastoral Epistles (especially 1 Timothy), like Ephesians, are considered by many critical commentators to be pseudonymous. This issue is complex and much debated, and I will not attempt to address it here. However, it certainly may be argued that 1 Timothy evinces a more developed sense of what we would call Christian tradition—a distinct, and relatively fixed, body of (‘orthodox’) beliefs and teachings which is to be preserved and carefully guarded against false teachers and other ‘heterodox’ outsiders. This, at least, suggests a relatively late date (sometime after 60 A.D.); those who regard 1 Timothy as pseudonymous would probably date it c. 90 A.D. It is not possible in the space here to offer a complete list of relevant passages, but a couple will be mentioned in passing.

1 Timothy 3:9, 16

These two references come from the end of the first half of the letter (cf. my outline of 1 Timothy below). The first is part of the instruction regarding ministers (lit. “servants”, diakonoi) in the congregation (3:8-13). The main criteria given for persons to serve in this ministerial role are outlined in two parts: (a) ethical/moral qualifications (vv. 8-10), and (b) head of a proper and well-run household (vv. 11-12).

NOTE: The possibility that verse 11 refers to female ministers, rather than simply to the wives of (male) ministers, is dealt with in a note in the series Women in the Church.

The following phrase is included within the moral qualifications of vv. 8-10:

“…holding the secret of the faith in a clean/pure sunei/dhsi$” (v. 9)

Normally, in early Christian language, pi/sti$ is to be rendered “trust”, i.e. trust in Christ, as also throughout the Pauline letters. However, gradually, the term came to have the semi-technical meaning “the (Christian) Faith”—Christianity itself as a religious designation. Something of this latter sense appears here in 1 Tim 3:9. As is clear from what follows in 3:14-16 and 4:1-5ff, the “secret of the faith” (to\ musth/rion th=$ pi/stew$) involves all of the core traditions and teachings which the minister must pass along and preserve/protect from corrupting influences. The word sunei/dhsi$ literally means “seeing (things) together”, i.e. a complete perception and understanding, often with a moral aspect, such as would correspond generally to the English word “conscience”. The moral/ethical sense is clear from vv. 8, 10, but it certainly also relates to a proper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first half concludes with vv. 14-16, and a Christological declaration (v. 16) that is the central point of the letter. It runs parallel to the exhortation to preserve correct teaching in 4:1-5 (and 6-10). Verses 14-15 relate to the (apparent) context of the letter—Paul is writing to Timothy, the written instruction serving an apostolic role in place of Paul’s appearance in person. The purpose of the writing is summed up with these words: “so that you might see [i.e. know] how it is necessary to turn (yourself) up (again) in the house of God”. The subjunctive perfect form ei)dh=|$ (eid¢¡s, “you might/should have seen”) could relate back to sunei/dhsi$ (suneíd¢sis, “see [things] together”) in v. 9 (cf. above). Also, in 3:11-12, it is said that the minister should be able to manage his own household, as a kind of prerequisite to serving in the house(hold) of God (i.e. the congregation), as stated here in v. 15. The verb a)nastre/fw (“turn up [again]”) in this context has the basic meaning of “return, go back (again)”, i.e. to show up repeatedly and work continually in “God’s house”. This “house of God” (originally used of the Temple) is specifically defined as the “congregation/assembly [e)kklhsi/a] of the living God”, and further characterized as “the pillar [stu=lo$] and base/ground [e)drai/wma] of the truth”. Again this truth relates back to the expression “secret of the faith” in v. 9, and, in verse 16, is centered in the core truth of the Gospel (regarding the person of Christ).

1 Timothy 3:16

This is one of the principal early Christian statements summarizing the Gospel message. In all likelihood, Paul (or the author) is drawing upon an earlier hymn or creedal formula. It is introduced this way:

“And account being given (all)together [i.e. according to us all] (we may say that) great (indeed) is the secret of good reverence [eu)se/beia]…”

The word eu)se/beia has no good translation in English; often it is rendered “religion, piety, godliness”, or something similar, but none of these are especially accurate. The related root verb se/bomai has to do with showing fear or reverence, esp. before God; and the compound verb eu)sebe/w essentially means showing good (that is, proper) reverence toward God. The eu)seb- word group is not used at all in the undisputed letters of Paul, but occurs more than a dozen times in the three Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3, 5-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12)—one of the differences in vocabulary which leads many commentators to doubt Pauline authorship. Apart from the Pastorals, the word group is found only in 2 Peter (1:3, 6-7; 2:9; 3:11) and the book of Acts (3:12; 10:2, 7; and 17:23 [spoken by Paul in the narrative]). It suggests the beginning of an understanding which regards (early) Christianity as a distinct religion. Here in 1 Timothy, the expression “secret of good reverence” (musth/rion th=$ eu)sebei/a$) is generally synonymous with the “secret of the faith” (musth/rion th=$ pi/stew$) from 3:9. The fundamental declaration of this “secret” in v. 16 is expressed in a hymnic statement, beginning with a relative pronoun (o%$, “who”) and consisting of six parallel lines:

“…[i.e. Jesus Christ] who
e)fanerw/qh e)n sarki/
was made to shine (forth) in (the) flesh
e)dikaiw/qh e)n pneu/mati
was made right/just in (the) Spirit
w&fqh a&gge/loi$
was seen (among the) Messengers
e)khru/xqh e)n e&qnesin
was proclaimed among (the) nations
e)pisteu/qh e)n ko/smw|
was trusted in (the) world
a)nelh/mfqh e)n do/ch|
was taken up in honor/glory

Each line contains an aorist passive verb followed by the preposition e)n (“in, among”) + dative; the preposition is missing in the third line, but probably should be assumed there as well. This simple, rhythmic structure would allow for easy memorization and use as a hymn or confessional formula. It consists of a set of three related pairs:

    • In the Flesh / Spirit
    • Among the Messengers (Angels) / Nations
    • In the World / Glory

It is also possible to read it as a chiasm:

Clearly these lines narrate the basic facts and elements of the Gospel, but not according to a chronological arrangement, as we might expect.

Perhaps most difficult is the use of the verb dikai/ow in the first line. It literally means “make right/just”, and is often used in the sense of a person being made (or declared) right/just before God, a sense which would not seem entirely appropriate applied to the person of Jesus. However, the verb may also be understood in the more general sense of “making (things) right”. An important aspect of the early Christian view of Jesus was that his death on the cross took place even though he was righteous and innocent of any crime; as such, on a basic level, his death was a terrible miscarriage of justice, one which God “made right” through the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to His right hand in heaven. This working-out of justice was done through the Spirit of God—the same (Holy) Spirit which makes believers right before God through trust in Christ.

Mention should be made of the important textual variant in 1 Tim 3:16. At the start of the hymn-formula, the majority of manuscripts read qeo/$ (“God”) instead of the relative pronoun o%$ (“who”). In spite of some opposition, most commentators (correctly) recognize that the relative pronoun is almost certainly original. It is appropriate to the hymnic/confessional form, and transcriptional probability overwhelming supports the alteration from o%$ to qeo/$, rather than the other way around. In the uncial Greek letters, o%$ would appear as os, which was then mistaken for qs, an abbreviated form of qeo$ (qeos). This “sacred name” abbreviation would be marked by an overline (+q+s), making it extremely unlikely that it would have been mistaken for the relative pronoun os. The change is probably also to be explained by the difficulty of syntax with the relative pronoun: “the secret of good reverence…who was…”; this difficulty is alleviated somewhat if we read the remainer of v. 16 essentially as a quotation: “…the secret of good reverence: (of Jesus Christ) ‘who was etc etc…'” On the other hand, if the majority reading turned out to be correct, then the “secret” would be localized specifically (primarily) in the incarnation of Christ (“God manifest in the flesh”).

Outline of 1 Timothy
    • Greeting (1:1-2)
    • Exhortation to Timothy (1:3-20), regarding
      —Preservation of correct teaching and tradition (vv. 3-11)
      —Paul’s own example as minister of the Gospel (vv. 12-20)
    • Guidelines for the Churches (2:1-3:13)
      —General instruction on Prayer and Worship (2:1-8)
      —continuation, emphasizing the role and position of Women (2:9-15)
      —Regarding “Overseers” (3:1-7)
      —Regarding “Servants/Ministers” (3:8-13)
    • Central declaration (3:14-16)
    • Exhortation to Timothy (4:1-16), regarding
      —False teaching (4:1-5)
      —Preservation of correct teaching and (ethical) conduct (4:6-10)
      —Example of Timothy as minister and apostolic representative (4:11-16)
    • Guidelines for the Churches (5:1-6:2)
      —General instruction related to the handling of men and women (5:1-2)
      —Regarding (female) “Widows” (5:3-16)
      —Regarding (male) “Elders” (5:17-20)
      —[Miscellaneous/personal instruction] (5:21-25)
      —Regarding those in the churches who are Slaves (6:1-2)
    • Exhortation to Timothy (6:1-19), regarding
      —False teaching and ethical conduct (vv. 1-10)
      —Example/encouragement for Timothy as minister of the Gospel (vv. 11-16)
      —The use of riches (vv. 17-19)
    • Conclusion (final instruction) and benediction (6:20-21)

August 19: 1 Corinthians 1:21

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note looked at 1:18, the first statement in the section]

1 Corinthians 1:21

“For thereupon, (since) in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through the wisdom, God considered (it) good, through the ‘stupidity’ of the proclamation, to save the (one)s trusting.”

The basic contrast set in verse 18 (cf. the previous note), and strengthened by the citation of Isa 29:14 in verse 19, culminates in the rhetorical challenge in verse 20:

“…has not God made dull/stupid [e)mw/ranen] the wisdom of the world?”

The verb mwrai/nw is related to the noun mwri/a, and continues the contrast between “wisdom” (swfi/a) and “dullness, stupidity” (mwri/a).

The use of the compound particle e)peidh/ which opens verse 21 is meant to give emphasis to a particular statement or conclusion; in English, we would say something like “now then, since…”. The first half of the verse uses a delightful bit of (elliptical) wordplay which is easily lost in translation:

    • “in the wisdom of God [e)n th=| sofi/a| tou= qeou=]”
      —”the world did not know”
    • “through the wisdom, God [dia\ th=$ sofi/a$ to\n qeo/n]”

The central phrase is important—”the world did not know”, emphasizing ignorance and lack of (true) knowledge. An interesting question involves whether, or to what extent, this refers to the world’s unwillingness to know, as opposed to a natural blindness/ignorance placed on it (by God). I would suggest that both aspects are indicated by the parallel phrases which bracket the statement:

“in the wisdom of God” (e)n th=| sofi/a| tou= qeou=)
“God through the wisdom” (dia\ th=$ sofi/a$ to\n qeo/n)

However, much depends on the exact force of the second use of “the wisdom”; in context, it can be read two ways:

    • “they did not know God through th(is) wisdom [i.e. through the wisdom of God]”, or
    • “they did not know God through the(ir) wisdom [i.e. through their own human wisdom]”

Both make sense, but I feel that the first option better fits the contrast with the second half of the verse (though perhaps only slightly so). Let us examine the basic outline of the sentence:

    • in the wisdom of God
      • the world did not know God
        • through th(is) wisdom
    • God considered it good
      • to save the ones trusting
        • through the stupidity (of the proclamation)

This does not represent the syntax of the Greek so much as the logic of the statement. According to the first interpretation (above), the world was unable (and/or unwilling) to know God by way of God’s own wisdom. It is possible that this assumes or alludes to the Jewish tradition of Wisdom (that is, God’s wisdom personified) looking to find a dwelling place among human beings on earth, and finding no welcome (1 Enoch 42:2; cf. also Prov 8:31; Sirach 24:8-12, and the likely influence on John 1:10-12). Jewish (and early Christian) Wisdom traditions would have affirmed a basic sense of what we call “natural revelation”—i.e., the manifestation of God’s nature and character through the works of creation, etc. Paul, in his own way, draws upon such thinking in Romans 1:18-23 (cf. also the speech in Acts 17:22-31 [esp. verses 26-28]). The second interpretation (above) yields a somewhat different emphasis:

    • in the wisdom of God
      • the world did not know God
        • through the wisdom (of the world), i.e. their own wisdom

This is more amenable to modern ways of thinking, and, certainly Paul makes reference to the world’s unwillingness/refusal to recognize God (esp. in Rom 1:18-23ff); however, the emphasis on human responsibility, if you will, is perhaps a bit out of place here. When Paul speaks of human ignorance (being “without knowledge”) prior to the introduction of the Gospel, it tends to be in the context of what God Himself specifically has established or has allowed—cf. Acts 14:16f; 17:30; Rom 14:16. In 1 Cor 2:8, the death of Christ is attributed to human ignorance, due to the fact that God has hidden his wisdom away from them; this will but touched on in a subsequent note (cf. also Acts 3:17). The emphasis of God’s action and purpose is perhaps expressed most forcefully in Galatians 3:22, which has a structure similar to 1 Cor 1:21:

    • he (God, through the Scripture, i.e. the Law)
      • closed all things together under sin
    • so he might give the promise (“it might be given”)
      • to the ones trusting
        • through [lit. out of] trust in Jesus Christ

The phrase “he closed all things together under sin” is parallel to “the world did not know”; similarly, “trust in Jesus Christ” is parallel with “the proclamation”. However one interprets 1 Cor 1:21, priority must be given to the will and purpose of God governing these things (“in the wisdom of God” / “God considered [it] good”). Let me summarize the two main interpretations presented above:

    1. The world did not know God through the wisdom of God, so:
      He chose to save the ones trusting (in Him) through something “stupid/foolish”
      —This expresses a kind of (divine) irony
    2. The world did/could not know God through its own wisdom, so:
      He decided to save the ones trusting through something the world itself considers “stupid/foolish”
      —An example of the popular “reversal of fortune” theme, and likewise ironic in its own way

In some ways, the most striking part of this verse is Paul’s expression “the stupidity of the proclamation”—that is, the proclamation of the Gospel. In what way is this proclamation “stupid”?—in that it has at its core the message of man put to death through the disgraceful punishment of crucifixion. This is made clear by Paul in vv. 23ff, which I will be discussing in the next daily note.

August 18: 1 Corinthians 1:18

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note examined 1:17, the concluding statement of the narratio, which leads into the first main section of the letter]

1 Corinthians 1:18

“For the account of the stake [i.e. cross] is (mere) stupidity to the (one)s being lost/destroyed; but to us the (one)s being saved, it is the power of God.”

This declaration by Paul begins the section 1:18-2:16, the first section of the probatio—the main body of the letter, which presents arguments and illustrations in support of the central proposition (in 1:10ff). It builds immediately off of the closing words in verse 17 (cf. the previous note):

“…the Anointed (One) set me forth…to give the good message, (and) not in (the) wisdom of (the) account, (so) that the stake [i.e. cross] of (the) Anointed (One) should not be emptied.”

The Gospel (“the good message”) is identifying as “the account of the stake” (o( lo/go$ [o(] tou= staurou=)—that is, a declaration or proclamation of the death of Jesus on the cross. We typically translate stauro/$ as “cross”, but it really means a stake or post set in the ground, such as that upon which a prisoner or executed man might be hung or impaled. It graphically signifies the punishment of crucifixion. In verse 17, Paul is stating that the significance is in the message itself, not in the way it is delivered or presented. The preacher ought to declare the fact of Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection), and what it means for humankind, without relying upon the style and technique of the oration, or clever/persuasive reasoning, etc. This Paul refers to by the expression “(the) wisdom of the account”—i.e. the intelligence and cleverness, etc, with which the message is proclaimed. The word lo/go$ (“account”) often means specifically the Gospel message (“the account/word of God”), but can also mean more generally the use of speech itself (“word[s]”)—Paul is playing on both of these meanings in vv. 17-18. According to the statement in v. 17, to rely on “wisdom” (that is, human wisdom) in proclaiming the Gospel risks emptying it of its true significance. One must admit that there is a bit of (rhetorical) exaggeration at work here, since, as any reading of the letters (and the speeches, etc., in the book of Acts) makes clear, Paul was himself a gifted speaker in many respects, and was more than willing to make use of “wisdom” to persuade men and women of the truth of the Gospel. However, the stark contrast has a definite purpose—to focus our attention on the content of the message, to the death (and resurrection) of Christ.

In verse 18, a different kind of contrast is established, with regard to the purpose and effect of the Gospel message (“the account of the cross/stake”), involving two distinct groups or classes of persons:

    • “the ones being lost/destroyed” (oi( a)pollume/noi)
    • “the ones being saved” (oi( swzome/noi)

Each group is identified by a verbal participle:

(1) The verb a)po/llumi (compound of o&llumi + the preposition a)po/ [“from”]) fundamentally means suffering loss from (someone/something). In the intransitive (middle) form, it often has the sense of “perish, be ruined, destroyed”. A strict rendering of the middle voice would indicate “lose/ruin oneself, lose one’s (own life)”, etc, implying that the loss is the fault or responsibility of the one who suffers it.

(2) The form here is a passive participle of sw/zw (“[to] save”)—i.e. “being saved”. Clearly the passive form here is an example of the passivum divinum (“divine passive”), used frequently in the Scriptures, in which God is assumed to be the one who acts. Both participles are present forms, indicating something which occurs generally or is going on at the present.

The message of the death of Christ has a different effect on each group:

    • the ones being lost/destroyed—”it is stupidity [mwri/a]”
    • the ones being saved—”it is (the) power of God [du/nami$ qeou=]”

Conventional Christian thinking associates being saved or lost with the person’s response to the Gospel; however, here Paul sets a different priority—the one (already) being saved/lost responds differently to the Gospel message. Salvation or destruction is realized and confirmed by how a person is affected by the message; the two responses may be compared:

(1) mwri/a—the word fundamentally means “dull(ness)”, which is typically applied to a human being in the sense of being “dim(-witted)”, often in the pejorative sense of “stupid, silly, foolish”, etc. The five occurrences in the the New Testament all come from 1 Cor 1:18-4:21, and are used in tandem (by way of contrast) with sofi/a (“wisdom”).

(2) du/nami$ qeou=—the word du/nami$ (“power”) also appears frequently (7 times) in 1:18-4:21, providing a different kind of contrast with “wisdom [sofi/a]” (that is, human wisdom). It is also a word that may be implied already in verse 17, in Paul’s statement that relying on “(human) wisdom” risks emptying the Gospel message (“the cross/stake of Christ”)—i.e. emptying it of its power. I prefer to understand the verb keno/w in the more ‘literal’ sense of emptying the message of its content; however, in Paul’s mind, the two aspects are probably connected rather closely. Certainly, he writes elsewhere (Rom 1:16) of the Gospel as being “the power of God”, which normally connotes the ability of God to effect a miraculous transformation of (human) nature. In 1 Cor 1:24 (to be discussed), the power of God is identified with the person of Christ himself.

The dualism established in 1:18 provides the basic framework for the line of argument running through this section. It is hard to say how far this was influenced by Isaiah 29:14, which Paul cites in v. 19:

“For it has been written:
‘I will destroy/ruin the wisdom of the wise (one)s,
and the understanding of the understanding (one)s I will unset [i.e. set aside]'”

The quotation follows the LXX—particularly in its substitution of the 1st person for the 3rd (“the wisdom of the wise will perish…”)—but with, it would seem, a free gloss or adaptation in the second half using the verb a)qete/w (“unset, set aside”) in place of kru/ptw (“hide” = Hebrew rt^s*). At any rate, the use of Isa 29:14 is fitting and confirms two basic points in Paul’s argument:

    1. The salvation and destruction are ultimately the result of God’s own will and action, and
    2. It is particularly human wisdom and knowledge which are destroyed or “set aside” in the proclamation of the Gospel

These are important to keep in mind as one reads the verses which follow, especially as Paul begins to play with the various aspects of the word “wisdom” (sofi/a)—alternating between divine and human wisdom—in verse 21, which is the subject of the next daily note.