So what is the purpose of the letters which make up most the rest of the New Testament? Having looked at the Gospels and Acts which tells the story of the beginnings of the spread of the message, we turn to the early writings of some of the apostles. Most of the letters are written by Paul but they do not appear in any particular order. The letter from James is possibly the earliest document in the New Testament. It is one of the ‘general letters’, so-called because it has no specific audience as far as is known. It is a very practical letter with an emphasis on the way to lead a life of faith. As a result, the theology is much simpler which is perhaps why Martin Luther famously labelled it the ‘Epistle of Straw’.
As usual a cross-reference Bible may be useful.
Thoughts about 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus
These three letters are known as the pastoral letters because they were written to pastors of churches. After Paul was released from imprisonment in Rome (around AD62) it is suggested that he might have embarked on a fourth missionary journey. Timothy was left in charge of the church in Ephesus while Titus was given charge of the work in Crete. Having settled these arrangements Paul then set out for Macedonia. Perhaps Paul worried about these two effective but inexperienced leaders, or maybe he received word that they were facing difficulty. For whatever reason he wrote first to Timothy (we think) then to Titus and then, having been imprisoned for a second time in Rome, he wrote to Timothy again.
To Timothy he writes about the need to be firm with those who promoting false teachings. The command is to focus on ‘sound doctrine’ (1 Tim 1:10). That doctrine is then expanded in the following verses. His own life is an example of the purpose of Christ’s coming which is the foundation of the glorious gospel. Timothy being a young man, Paul was concerned that older people might seek to intimidate him and cause him to deviate from the path.
Worship needs to be orderly, calm and above reproach. In Ephesus in particular the role of women at that time needed to be considered carefully in the light of the practices in the temple of Artemis where temple prostitutes were prominent. It is likely that these instructions were not intended for all time and in all places. For one thing the church in Philippi, from where Paul may well have written this letter, would appear to have had several women in leadership.
The choice of elders and deacons should also be governed by a sense of order. Chapter 3 lays down a list of qualities required of people in such positions. These are added to in Titus 1, as we shall observe later. He also has instructions for the role of pastor, returning to the exhortation for Timothy to remain strong and not be bullied by older men. (1 Tim 4:12) Was Timothy possibly struggling with his relationships with church members? Were people trying to pressurise him into favouring some people’s needs over others. That might explain the explicit instructions in chapter 5. Perhaps Timothy had written to Paul requesting advice on how to deal with widows, elders, slaves etc. Timothy is to set an example, exercising restraint in all his actions, words and attitudes so that all may know and follow the path of godliness.
The task of Titus on Crete has some similarities. Titus1:5 suggests that Paul and Titus had been working together on the island. Since the ministry there is not mentioned in Acts it is likely that Paul returned there after his imprisonment in Rome, possibly to follow up contacts made when he made a brief visit while a prisoner under escort to Rome (Acts 27). As with the letter to Timothy, Paul stresses the need for ensuring the suitability of elders as the new church seeks to combat the low standards of behaviour which seem to have been the norm. That phrase ‘sound doctrine’ appears again in Titus 2:1. Here it is not expanded on, perhaps because Titus was well aware of what was meant. There are, however, parallels with the words to Timothy in Paul’s instructions to Titus regarding teaching women, slaves and other groups within the church. ‘Don’t let anyone despise you’ (Titus 2:15) echoes 1 Timothy 4:12.
The call to step away from unruliness in chapter 3 is a further clue to the specific task on Crete. It must have been tough to set an example and raise standards when there were so many who were ‘foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved’ (Titus 3:3). Yet there is a reminder that ‘we’ (presumably Paul and Titus) were once like that. Therefore there is hope for those who will follow the command to ‘do good’. Verse 8 resonates with Philippians 4:8-9.
The second letter to Timothy, written shortly before Paul was executed, is written in a different tone. The circumstances are different. Paul was chained in a dungeon like a common criminal he was lonely – only Luke was with him (2 Tim 4:11) and presumably scribed the letter. Perhaps he had received news of Timothy’s continuing struggles and was concerned to provide some instruction and encouragement. Perhaps also Paul was aware that some people were trying to play down Paul’s imprisonment for fear of undermining the gospel. Paul says otherwise. We are not given a spirit of timidity (1:7) and so should not be ashamed to testify or be ashamed of imprisonment for the faith (1:8)
The instructions set out in the first letter are briefly underlined: Guard the good deposit (1:14). Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2:1). Then there is the hint that Timothy should be passing the task of teaching to others who are qualified to teach (presumably according to the instructions in the first letter). Although this is a much more personal letter than the previous one, or the letter to Titus, there are still common themes. ‘Godliness’ is emphasised in chapter 3 and explained more fully.
Towards the end of the letter Paul reflects on all that he has gone through, some of which were witnessed personally by Timothy. There is the feeling that Paul knows he may not have another opportunity to communicate with Timothy, in spite of the pleas to get to Rome before winter, and so gives some final words of advice, one of the most famous being ‘all scripture is God-breathed’ (3:16). The Word is of greatest importance.