(An earlier version of this essay was published in Voice: An Independent Church Journal, May/June 2017 (96:3), 20-21.

First Timothy is one of the four so-called “pastoral epistles,” letters written to individual church leaders instead of whole churches. While this letter is written to an individual leader, Paul expects the church at Ephesus will read it over the recipient’s shoulder, as it were. The letter serves not only to encourage and instruct Timothy but also to publically authorize him to continue the reforms Paul had begun.

Paul has apparently been released from his first Roman imprisonment and is visiting churches around the Aegean Sea. He and Timothy recently labored in Ephesus before Paul departed, leaving Timothy to sort out a mess created by an incursion of false teachers (1:3), something Paul foretold years before (Acts 20:28-30). Timothy is more than a pastor in his role. He serves as a special representative charged with completing the apostle’s work. While Timothy’s charge has some unique features to it, there are many timeless principles for church leaders and churches today.

The letter opens with Paul asserting his apostolic authority (1:1) and affirming Timothy’s role as his beloved associate (1:2b). Paul reiterates Timothy’s charge to confront the false teachers (1:3-20). The errorists were teaching the Bible in a very unbiblical way (1:7). Paul illustrates how to use the Old Testament biblically, arguing, for instance, that a proper understanding of the Ten Commandments must accord with the Gospel (1:8-10). Paul shares his own testimony as a Christian-hating lawbreaker whom Christ transformed (1:12-17). The formal opening charge (1:18-20) gives rousing instructions to fight against the faith-wrecking errors of false teachers like those recently excommunicated (1:20).

In the second section (2:1-3:13), Paul instructs Timothy to reestablish order in the church. The first issue involves the church’s meetings (2:1-15). Prayers should be made for governing authorities (2:1-2) with a view toward the church enjoying continued freedom to preach the Gospel (2:3-7). After Paul briefly addresses the need for men to lead by godly example (2:8), he speaks to the roles of women (2:8-15). Women are encouraged to learn along with the congregation (2:11) but not to exercise authority over or teach men (2:12). The second issue involves the appointment of men with qualified character to serve as overseers (3:1-7) and deacons (3:8-13). This was likely a major problem needing reformation since false teachers were in positions of influence.

In the third section (3:14-4:5), Paul explains that the epistle is an advance letter preparing for Paul’s inspection (3:14). Believers must view the church as God’s holy house and the platform for Gospel truth (3:15-16). Paul reinforces earlier prophecies about the rise of false teachers—a danger over which the church must always be vigilant (4:1-5).

The fourth section (4:6-16) addresses Timothy’s personal walk (4:6-10) and his public ministry (4:11-17). The more he is nourished in the truth, disciplined in spirit, and laboring in hope, the better equipped he’ll be to faithfully lead the church.

The fifth section (5:1-6:2) addresses relationships in the church. Believers should pursue wholesome family-like relationships with one another (5:1-2). Special instructions are provided for the church’s support of widows (5:3-16). While families should take primary lead in widow-care (5:3-8), the church may employ widows if certain qualifications are met (5:9-16). Paul also instructs Timothy in his administrating elders (5:17-25), explaining how to give appropriate honor, practice discipline, and make selections. Lastly, Paul gives counsel to slaves on relating to their masters (6:1-2).

The final section (6:3-19) confronts the false teachers’ carnal motives (6:5), and stresses the surpassing value of godliness with contentment (6:6-10). In the final formal charge (6:11-16), Paul urges Timothy to holiness and tenaciousness (6:11-12) in light of his accountability to the coming Lord Jesus (6:14). Wealthy believers are also to be charged about the dangers of money-love (6:17-19). Such believers face great temptations but also have great potential to do good.

In the conclusion (6:20-21), Paul signs off with a heartfelt plea for Timothy to guard the truth and not be detoured by the false teachers’ so-called “knowledge.” The closing prayer of the book (6:21) is a prayer for God’s grace to the whole church.