The Christology of 1 Timothy
When we introduce the subject of Christology, most minds immediately gravitate to such texts as Isaiah 53, John 1:1-14, Colossians 1:14-23, and Philippians 2:1-11; but, would you have thought of 1 Timothy as being a significant Christological work? When most think of this letter, they think of the role of church leadership or women. Rarely does the magisterial role of Christ come to mind. But let’s consider three valuable Christological confessions from 1 Timothy and see how they not only shape our understanding of Christ but also our understanding of this letter.
1 Timothy 1:15-17
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
In this first Christological confession we discover the pre-existence of Christ. He is the King of the ages and immortal one. He rules over all time periods and death has no power over Him. He has always existed in rule and always will exist as ruler.
The concept that Christ “came into the world” echoes John’s similar language. I. Howard Marshall comments in the ICC, The Pastoral Epistles, “In John the language indicates pre-existence, i.e. that an existing divine being came from outside into this world, rather than that somebody simply says ‘I was born’. In the PE the context is the author’s epiphany Christology within which pre-existence is a likely implication” (398).
Why did God the Son exit His sphere and enter ours? One reason (and a crucial one in God’s redemptive plan!) is that the Son appeared in the first advent “to save sinners.” Paul’s confession that he was personally the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) should be our confession when we think of what it cost God the Son to redeem us.
Why is this? Because we too, like Paul once stood in unbelief and rejection of the Gospel. John Calvin reminds us, “These words inform us how heinous and dreadful a crime unbelief is before God.”2 Without Christ we are hopeless sinners. With Christ we may sound the trumpet of this faithful saying and rejoice that he, indeed, saves sinners.``
In this passage we learn two critical and comforting truths about Christ: The first is about the person of Christ and the second is about the work of Christ. First, Christ is no mere man. He always existed; he is God, worthy of worship and adoration. Second, Christ relocated himself into our world to rescue us from our miserable sinful state and in so doing demonstrate His right to rule as victor over sin. Essentially, 1 Timothy 1 connects Christ to salvation.
1 Timothy 3:16
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
This verse confounds me every time I read it. It is a great comfort for any who are called to pastoral ministry. In reading chapter three, any man will feel utterly unworthy of the qualifications of an elder or deacon. First Timothy 3:16 washes us in comforting Christology.
Daniel Akin, in his chapter in Entrusted with the Gospel, refers to this verse as “the fulcrum of the epistle” and “one of the great Christological confessions in all of Scripture” (140). This verse inspired the Puritan Walter Marshall’s work, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification – which Joel Beeke calls the “classic Puritan work on the relationship between justification and sanctification.” Phillip Towner in the NICNT’s, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, says about this verse, “The hymn describes salvation history: the gospel-creating events of Christ’s death and resurrection/vindication being followed by gospel-preaching events” (278).
So much rich truth is packed in this verse! And it is no mistake that it concludes the previous section on church leadership.
The great mystery of godliness is not that men measure up to a laundry list of godly characteristics to which they will never fully conform. Rather it is grounded first and foremost in conforming to the manifestation of the fully flesh human who proved to be the fully glorious God Jesus Christ. Our identity is founded in our union with Him, which we believe and proclaim. It is the catalyst for both our participatory role in personal holiness and our missional role of proclaiming the gospel. Fundamentally, 1 Timothy 3 connects Christ to holiness and mission.
1 Timothy 6:13-16
I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time – he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
The letter of 1 Timothy concludes with this Christological doxology. The doxology is bound up in a final charge that Paul gives to Timothy to be faithful to his pastoral calling. What do we learn about Christ here?
There will be a second advent. Christ came a first time, and as Paul conveyed in chapter 1, He came to save sinners. 1 Timothy 6 bookends this letter by telling of the glorious return of Christ. His appearing will be triumphal. Many scholars connect the language “appearing” to imperial cult language akin to that of Augustus, Nero, or others who followed like Hadrian. These rulers “appeared” throughout their land, visiting city after city, to confirm their rule and evaluate the state of their people – were they submitting to his rule?
Harry Maier in Picturing Paul in Empire says, “These parallels leave little doubt that the author of the Pastorals drew on imperial language to communicate Christological ideas and that when listeners heard the coming of Jesus represented as an [appearing] he could rely on them to make those associations.”
Jesus, like these others rulers, will appear to confirm his rule of all people and to evaluate those people; he will judge them. Of course we know that his judgment hinges on belief or unbelief.
We also know, as Paul portrays in verse 15, that Jesus is not just a ruler among many other rulers like those of the imperial cult. Verse 15 portrays Christ as a ruler, par-excellence. In other words, he’s not just a ruler; he’s the Ruler; he’s the Ruler of rulers. I love the way in which George Knight explains the words, “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords” in the NIGTC commentary on The Pastoral Epistles: “The statement in its entirety says that God is the possessor of the highest power over all who possess power and has full control over all who exercise control” (269).
This should shake up our perspective on the popularity, power, and control seeking mindset of today. Post-modernity says, “We should all be known; we should all have power; we should all have control.” Paul says, “Submit it all to the most popular, most powerful, and only provident God, Christ.” We like to think we have power and control. But all of that power and control we have, whether we willingly submit it or not, submits to Christ ultimately in his return and coming judgment. That’s sobering! And it was a sobering closing reminder to Timothy. Timothy’s popularity, authority, and purpose submit to Christ. He should not be haughty about being the hot stuff lead elder in Ephesus. He should approach his role with humility and holiness in submission to Christ. That’s the message we need to hear whether we are a pastor, father, or leader at any capacity. 1 Timothy 6 connects Christ to His present authority over all and to His future coming and judgment.
The Christology in 1 Timothy is not only stout--it is experiential. Every Christological connection hits us between the eyes and applies sweet truth to our lives. Whether it be the warm blanket of salvation (1 Timothy 1), the profound mystery of holiness (1 Timothy 3), or the humility that comes with submission (1 Timothy 6). Enjoy and savor these sweet morsels about Christ!
Joey Cochran, a ThM graduate of Dallas Seminary, is the Church Planting Intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of Joe Thorn. Joey contributes to 9Marks, TGC, CBMW, GCD, Servants of Grace, and Christianity.com among others. You may follow Joey at jtcochran.com or @joeycochran