Conventional wisdom in Pastorals scholarship has it that by the time these letters were written (most likely by a follower of Paul after his death, many contend), the hope of an imminent return of Christ had faded. Instead, it is argued, the author has settled for a state of affairs in which the church organizes itself and prepares for the long haul—Christ may not return for a long time. According to these scholars, we’ve reached the phase of “early Catholicism,” a time when Christians aspired to be good citizens and pursued a quiet, virtuous life in the midst of an unbelieving world.
What are we to make of this interesting theory? In my research on this question, I’ve found that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the author of 1-2 Timothy and Titus is emphatic that the last days are already upon the church in the form of false teachers who spread their heresies as instruments of Satan and his demons. Timothy and Titus are thus involved in intense spiritual warfare and are called to help preserve those under their care from spiritual harm. In this way, we see that eschatology—the doctrine of the last things—is alive and well in these letters. In fact, it could be argued that here ecclesiology—the church—and eschatology converge.
Satan, Demons, Angels
In 1 Tim 1:20, Paul writes that he has given two false teachers—Hymenaeus and Alexander—over to Satan in order not to blaspheme. Later, Timothy is told not to appoint new converts, or they “might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil” (1 Tim 3:6); also, if anyone doesn’t have a good reputation, he is liable to fall into “the devil’s trap” (1 Tim 3:7; cf. 2 Tim 2:26).
In 1 Tim 4:1–3, Paul speaks of some who promulgate “the teachings of demons,” among which is a prohibition against marriage and eating certain kinds of food. Later, Paul says that some young widows, under the influence of false teachers, “have already turned away to follow Satan” (1 Tim 5:14–15). This passage harks back to 2:14, where Paul speaks of “the woman” (Eve) having been deceived by Satan, who tempted her in the Garden to transgress God’s command.
On the positive side, Paul mentions that Jesus, presumably following the resurrection, was “seen by angels” (1 Tim 3:16). Later, he solemnly charges Timothy to follow his instructions “before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels” (1 Tim 5:21). Contrary to those who say that the letters to Timothy and Titus are devoid of end-time references, therefore, it is more accurate to say, to paraphrase Martin Luther, that the world of these letters is “with devils filled.”
False Teachers & Vice Lists
Not only is the world of the letters to Timothy and Titus filled with devils, it is also filled with false teachers or other opponents (note that all named false teachers are male). Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim 1:20), Phygelus and Hermogenes (2 Tim 1:15), Hymenaeus (again) and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17), Demas (2 Tim 4:10), and Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14). In addition, there are many references to unnamed individuals who have strayed from the faith (e.g., 1 Tim 6:21; cf. 2 Tim 2:18). It seems that many of these false teachers used households, especially in the absence of the male heads, as a base for their errant instruction (e.g., 1 Tim 5:14–15).
In conjunction with the reference to the devil and demons, and to false teachers, we find in the letters to Timothy and Titus several vice lists (e.g., 2 Tim 3:2–5) which we’ve already mentioned in the previous post on the Christian life and the pursuit of a series of godly virtues. In the midst of the prevailing climate of ungodliness, believers need to persevere and be preserved from doctrinal error (the “preservation theme”) and from falling into a life-style of immorality.
Future Resurrection & Judgment
At the same time, Paul upholds the glorious hope of end-time resurrection for believers: “If we died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim 2:11–12). In 2 Tim 1:1, Paul speaks of “the promise of life in Christ Jesus”; in Titus 1:2, he similarly refers to the “hope of eternal life.” Paul’s teaching regarding the sure expectation of a future resurrection counteracts the heresy circulating in the Ephesian church “that the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Tim 2:18).
Finally, Paul nurtures the expectation of a future day of judgment and vindication. Thus, he writes, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day” (2 Tim 1:12). Later, he echoes the same sentiment when he writes, “May the Lord grant that he obtain mercy from [the Lord] on that day” (2 Tim 1:18). Toward the end of his life, the apostle expressed the confidence that there was reserved for him “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day” (2 Tim 4:6–8).
Conclusion: Living in the Light of Christ’s Return
A climactic exclamation point is provided when Paul writes in Titus 2:11–13 that believers living between Christ’s first and second coming ought to “live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We see here that the expectation of Christ’s return serves as powerful motivation for ethics and virtuous living in the here and now. Because we know that Christ is coming back, and that he will reward those who have been faithful to him and judge those who have rejected him, what we do in this life really does matter. In this way, the end times are truly upon us, and we should live our lives each and every day in light of Jesus’ return.