Where Do We Start?
What is the best starting point in unearthing Paul’s theology in his letters to Timothy and Titus? This is a difficult yet vital question, because as is often the case in New Testament writings, the author’s thoughts are complex and multi-faceted. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are no exception. Clearly, what we find is that Paul interrelates multiple themes into a theological fabric as he conveys his thoughts and issues his directives to his apostolic delegates in the city of Ephesus and on the island of Crete. So, where do we start?
It could be argued that the most appropriate place to start is God. This is where Robert Yarbrough starts in his forthcoming Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. As Yarbrough rightly notes, every chapter in these letters “contains explicit reference to God” (the Father). Who could deny that everything in Scripture starts and ends with God? Certainly, Yarbrough’s call for a theocentric reading of these letters is well taken, especially in a day when God is often strangely neglected in biblical scholarship.
Another possible starting point could be Christ, or the salvation he provides. In the letters to Timothy and Titus, Christ plays a pivotal role and is closely connected with God (the Father), especially via the phrases “God our Savior” and “Christ our Savior.” This is why many have identified salvation as the pivotal theme in these letters. This is also supported by the considerable number of additional references to salvation and the central role of salvation in the New Testament at large.
Yet while all these themes—God, Christ, salvation—are undoubtedly important and should be given a prominent place in our understanding of Paul’s thought as expressed in these letters, I would argue that there is one other theme that deserves to be the starting point in our exploration of Paul’s theology in his letters to Timothy and Titus. This theme is that of mission, or more specifically, Paul’s apostolic mission, which in turn forms a vital and integral part of the mission of the early church.
Documents of a Mission
The late Howard Marshall has rightly pointed out that the New Testament writings should be viewed as “documents of a mission,” and the letters to Timothy and Titus are certainly no exception. To the contrary, their connection with Paul’s apostolic mission constitutes a vital key to unlock their proper interpretation. Only if one fully appreciates this all-important connection will one be able to understand why the author of these letters articulates his theology about God, Christ, salvation, and other topics in the way he does.
Paul’s mission, and the mission of the early church, are chronicled in the book of Acts, which serves as the proper historical framework and background for Paul’s directives and the ministry associates he mentions in his letters to Timothy and Titus. Acts mentions Paul’s ministry in Ephesus and also briefly narrates Paul’s journey past Crete in the latter part of the book. Yet the situation in which Paul’s apostolic delegates (Timothy and Titus) find themselves when they receive Paul’s letters most likely points to a time after the ending of Acts.
Paul’s Role as a Herald
As N. T. Wright has noted in an important article, Paul conceives of his ministry as that of a “herald” (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11) who, as was common in the Greco-Roman world, would enter a given region and make first-time proclamation of a given piece of news (in his case, the gospel). As far as Paul was concerned, once he had made such an initial announcement of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, his own personal mission had been fulfilled. At that point, he delegated the task of follow-up to one or several of his associates (such as Timothy or Titus).
Paul’s purpose and mission statement are articulated trenchantly at the end of 2 Timothy where Paul writes: “so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Tim 4:17). Importantly, the phrase “all the Gentiles” (or “nations”) echoes God’s promises to Abraham in the book of Genesis that all the nations would be blessed through him which are also reflected in the well-known Great Commission is the risen Lord Jesus (Matt 28:19) and other teachings of Jesus.
Paul’s Mission as Fulfillment of God’s Ancient Promises
In essence, what Paul proclaimed was that God’s ancient promises had now been fulfilled and brought to completion in the coming and saving death of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. This self-understanding of Paul’s role and calling in God’s plan of salvation therefore grounds the theology of his letters to Timothy and Titus. Rightly understood, mission provides the fulcrum of Paul’s theology in these letters, integrating other pivotal themes such as God the Father, Christ the Son, and the salvation that God provided in and through Christ.
In Paul’s own words to Titus, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who cannot lie, promised before time began. In his own time, he has revealed his word in the preaching with which I was entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (Titus 1:1-3). In these opening words, Paul grounds the remainder of his letter in his apostolic consciousness of being God’s servant and Christ’s apostle in keeping with God’s ancient promises.
Conclusion: Paul’s Vision and Our Mission
So, then, what was Paul’s vision? In addition to the above-mentioned passages, we find an intriguing clue to this question in an easily-overlooked likely allusion to the Old Testament book of Malachi in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. There, he writes, “I want the men in every place to pray” (1 Tim 2:8). The phrase “in every place” may point to Malachi 1:11 where we read, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the nations, and in every place incense is brought to my name, … for my name is great among the nations.”
Paul’s grand vision is that God’s name be glorified among the nations. To spearhead this effort as God’s servant and Christ’s apostle was Paul’s calling in his generation. This also is the tradition in which we stand. We, too, have a role to play in extending the good news of forgiveness and salvation to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). As we take our place, we do so in the line of a “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us and in the company of great men such as Paul who ensured his apostolic legacy by writing the letters to Timothy and Titus.
Note: For a fuller articulation of Paul’s theology of mission in the letters to Timothy and Titus, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy & Titus (BTCP; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 361-85.