Hercules relief in a column from Ephesus
“Fight the good fight of faith” – think of it as something heroic

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, February 25 is 1 Timothy 6:11-21. Here are my notes on that text:

First Impressions: What is the “all this” that is to be avoided or shunned? (apparently doctrinal disputes and arguments, in particular ones that are oriented towards getting “gain” out of the gospel; “the love of money” 6:10) What is “the good fight of faith”? What does faith fight? What is “the” commandment that he is supposed to keep? (Perhaps “love one another as I have loved you?” Or something else?) It sounds as if it is Jesus Christ who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light … unless the “he” in v. 15 reverts back to God who gives life to all things (v13), … but at a minimum it seems that Christ dwells with God. Why must there be special instructions for those who are rich (v17-18)? For Timothy, again, “guarding what has been entrusted” – literally, “deposited” with him for safekeeping – means that he must avoid profane chatter and what is “falsely called” knowledge (v20). How should we take all these instructions?

Background, Context The book of 1 Timothy along with the other “pastorals,” 2 Timothy and Titus, poses some problems for scholars: are they “Pauline” or “pseudo-“ or “deutero-Pauline,” when were they written, why …? These short texts are stylistically different from the undisputed letters, using new words, not using familiar words and ideas, and so on; they describe a chronology that differs from some of the other sources we have for Paul’s timeline. On the other hand, there are arguments around those objections as well, including the suggestion that these letters were written by an associate or “amanuensis” who had considerable freedom in composition. Because of these doubts, it’s hard to date the texts – perhaps they are from as early as 63 or 64 CE, but perhaps as late as 90CE or so, depending on one’s preferred story about authorship. In any event, they are in the canon now.

The internal evidence from 1 Timothy leads us to think that the text is addressed to Timothy, and perhaps to the whole church, in Ephesus; that the church is struggling with some kind of “false teaching” – its content not altogether clear, maybe incorporating gnostic or proto-gnostic elements – and the instructions in the letter all or mostly have the concern about this conflict as background.

Our passage is the very end of the book, summing up Paul’s/the author’s advice, after having laid out a policy on providing aid to widows and elders, encouraging slaves to serve their current masters well, and criticizing the folks who want to dispute “sound teaching” with endless arguments, apparently for the sake of “gain” – perhaps trying to exploit the community of the church. (1 Tim 6:5) This context makes a little more sense of the advice to “those who in the present age are rich” in vv 17-18.

Closer Reading: Our text seems to divide into a charge to Timothy, supported by a theological vision of God (vv11-16), a charge to the rich (vv17-18), and a final exhortation to steer clear of the arguments (vv20-21).

The first instruction to Timothy seems to draw on athletic images: Timothy should “flee” from the disputatious wrangles that are motivated by desire for gain; “pursue” the list of virtues – righteousness, godliness, faith, love (agape), endurance, gentleness – “fight the good fight of faith,” literally engage in the [metaphorical] athletic contest demanded by the overall situation, perhaps, and lay hold of the prize, “eternal life” (vv11-12). This good fight is matched by the “good confession” Timothy has made (v12), and the eternal life presumably comes from God “who gives life to all things” (v13).

It is not clear what the “good confession” consists of, but it was made by Jesus before Pilate, too (v13). Likewise, it is not clear what “the commandment” is that Timothy is to keep until the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ – but the author charges him to keep it in the presence of God, and goes on to underscore the significance of the God – and perhaps Jesus Christ as well, because it is not alltogether clear who is being described in vv15-16, although the statement that “no one has ever seen or can see” him probably leans in the direction of God the First Person of the Trinity – before whom this confession is being made and this commandment is being kept. God is blessed, sovereign, and mystical, dwelling in “unapproachable light,” intrinsically immortal, and given honor and limitless authority.

The verses that concern the rich emphasize riches; the word “rich” or some version of it is repeated 4 times in these two verses, 5 times if we get to count “treasure,” and the gist of the instruction is to rely on the richly provident God, to cultivate genuine riches, namely in “good works,” and so take hold on “true” or genuine life; as the NRSV has it, “the life that really is life” (v19). In both of these instructions, then, life – the eternal, true life that God gives to all things – is something to grasp (v12, 19).

Finally, Timothy’s guarding of the “deposit” he has seems to mean his avoidance of the “profane chatter” and arguments of the self-described knowledgeable ones, which has the effect of diverting people from sound faith.

All in all, these final instructions sound a lot like the talk a coach would give to an athlete: stick to this course, keep your eyes on the prize, don’t let the fad diets and exercise regimes pull you off your solid training regimen, and you are going to see the results … in this case, the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the life that really is life.