Thursday, January 20, 2005

Commentary on 1 Timothy (Chapter 2)

Part 2 of a 6-part series (Chapters 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6)

This chapter has got to be one of the most controversial chapters of the Bible, at least in modern-day. Specifically the second paragraph incites great wrath among many who have grown accustomed to the great egalitarian movements of the 1970s and 1990s. Nonetheless, Scripture is Scripture, and we must read and interpret based on what the text conveys itself to be. We trust that God has planned and ordered life according to his perfect will and that he will in the end bring even the native conflict between man and woman to peace.

2:1) Paul urges us to make "intercessions," a concept that he expands in later verses. Here he seeks for us to pray for "all people," though with emphasis on "kings and all who are in high positions" (v. 2). What is the motive, and how should we reconcile such prayer for those who might inflict evil and terror on the people?

2:2) "That we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way," sums up the motive behind Paul's words. We pray that our leaders might establish justice in the land. Paul speaks during a time of considerable unrest, with persecution always inflamed or festering. If leaders would give religious freedom--even religious protection--to those of the Christian faith, believers could experience peaceful, quiet lives. No longer would they have to run around as if rats, dodging government officials and persecuting citizens, but could instead live lives "dignified in every way." We pray for evil leaders precisely so that they would turn to good.

Scholars seem to universally acknowledge that persecution drives communities together. The evil that Christians collectively galvanized their faith and unity. Without such persecution, would the community split? By praying for justice and deliverance from terror, do we pray for our own disunity and destruction? From examples in history, we realize that periods of peace toward Christians have indeed developed their dignity, to the point that Christians have become the arrogant persecutors of those of other faiths. "Godly and dignified" have not always gone together.

Paul does not actually tell us specifically what to pray; we infer that he prays for justice simply because the Psalms and Isaiah and so much of the rest of Scripture have advocated peace and justice in the world. What we must realize is that when the Bible speaks of justice, it speaks of justice for all. God does not establish and protect Christians, often giving them prominent seats of authority and judgment, so that they might in turn inflict injustice on others. God seeks for both "godly and dignified" living, both godly and dignified "in every way." Whether as subjects or rulers, slaves or citizens, God seeks to bring justice in this world both for and from us.

2:3) As if anticipating our doubt, Paul declares directly, "This is good." It's all right to to live a peaceful and dignified life. Having become accustomed to life as a renegade, Paul affirms that it's okay to return to normalcy. In fact, it's more than okay--it's good.

2:4) What's not good is returning to one's former state in life. Paul wants peace, but not at the expense of hard-won gains in Christianity. He wants the peace that comes people of all walks of life coming to peace with God. "God our Savior" came not to watch people war in anguish and civil war, but "desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." Of course, this very knowledge is what sets many people at war with one another. So many have come to hate hearing about their sin and need to be saved. We need to pray precisely for this reason, that kings, ruler, merchant, and peasant might not only hear the knowledge of the truth, but "come to" it, coming to terms with and accepting it.

Paul seeks peace so that Christianity might flourish. With political protection from persecution, people could finally begin to openly discuss Christianity. While the word may have spread like wildfire through the underground church, the movement probably could have had far greater breadth and depth if people everywhere could bring up the discussion and contemplate it continuously, fearlessly. By praying for the peace of the nation, we also implicitly pray for peace with God. By praying specifically for both the peace of the nation and peace with God, we express the true desire of our hearts, something "good, and...pleasing in the sight of God."

2:5) Just after urging us to make "intercessions" (v.1), for all people, in other words to speak for all people to God, Paul tells us, "There is one mediator between God and men." Speaking in the same passage, we would assume not only that Paul has not contracticted himself, but that he makes a deliberate parallel between our action and that of Jesus. Jesus is the only medidator, yet in a way we get to emulate his character. By becoming his followers, in some sense we become him, taking on a privilege that he solely in the universe holds. We have the privilege--the responsibility--of coming between people and God when they might very well have never come to him, or where he would have come to them only in judgment. We cannot let our anger or unforgiveness toward others thwart the oppotunity to save them from spiritual ruin, for without our intercession they might have little contact with God until he comes in full glory and wrath.

Of course we might respond, "But isn't Jesus the one and only Mediator, anyway? Why should I take on this responsibility of interceding for people?" Paul indicates that one of the reasons that Jesus is Mediator is because he is "the man." Jesus can relate with us because he is a man, just as he can relate to God because he is also God. Despite his manhood, Jesus still remains intangible to many people. They just don't see Jesus in the flesh. We are "man" also, and as people united with Jesus, we can serve as his human, visible extension into this world. The Catholic church calls this concept the Sacrament of the Church, where the Church is the material manifestation of the mysterious concept of Christ. Jesus is the Mediator, but he chooses to mediate some of this intercessorship through us. We become mediators for the Mediator. In the end, however, "there is one mediator." Jesus could operate without us, and I imagine he often does. What a privilege, then, that he does choose to work through us!

In a sense then we can say that Jesus is the mediator between God and man, while we are mediators between men and Man, the Man Jesus Christ. We help bridge the gap between Jesus and those people who otherwise may never have heard of him. We extend his outreach. On the flip side, Jesus doesn't actually need us. As mediator between God and man, he has the capacity to reach all people. For some reason he chooses to use us, however imperfect we are!

Digression: We gain an important lesson from Jesus' example. He chooses to use us even though he knows he could supernaturally, divinely carry out the task with much greater ease and perfection. Nonetheless he also realizes how much we can grow from the experience, and how much even those whom we reach can grow by having to come to Christ through more natural means rather than through a thoroughly supernatural assistance. Christ is willing to sacrifice perfection for our increase in faith. Sometimes in daily life I would rather take care of things than commit the responsibility to others. I simply think that I know the task better and can perform it to greater perfection. Yet learning from Jesus' example, we see how much others can gain by sharing some of this responsibility. Of course, my case is slightly different from that of Jesus, for I couldn't really perform the task perfectly, and one of my motives for doling of the responsibilities is simply because I don't have the infinite strength to do the task even if I wanted to. Nonetheless, one application remains relevant: it's all right to be imperfect. I don't have to demand that everything goes exactly as I had hoped, but can instead let other people work things out the best they can. That in the end may very well turn out the best for all, myself included.

2:6) Who ever heard of a mediator who decides to give up his life for whom he's mediating? Usually a mediator acts simply as a neutral party, someone who merely comes between two warring factions to help them come to an agreement. The mediator himself likely has no vested interest in either side. Jesus' takes his duty as Mediator one step further: he not merely facilitates peace between the parties, God and men, but actually creates the path. He becomes the collatoral, the "ransom," for the peace. As a "ransom," Jesus would seem to be at the mercy of God rather than having the independence of a true, neutral mediator, yet we do find in the Gospels that Jesus voluntarily gives himself up as ransom. He is both Ransom and Mediator at once, the collatoral as well as the conduit for our salvation from sin.

How is Jesus' giving himself as a ransom a "testimony given at the proper time"? How is a "ransom" a "testimony"? Perhaps if we replaced "testimony" with "statement," we would come closer to home. Jesus' sacrifice of himself as a ransom makes a statement, and a very timely one at that. God makes the statement to the world that he does care about people--all people--and seeks peace and justice. He wants people to be able to leade peaceful and quiet lives. We might argue that Christianity has only created greater conflict over the centuries, starting right then at one extreme in the Roman Empire, where persecution sought to root out Christians as scapegoats and gladiator jests, and just as persecution against Christians begins to die out, persecution by Christians begins to settle in with the Crusades and witch-hunts and other prejudiced practices. Yet we must remember that society was no less violent by itself, in places completely isolated from Christianity, and through Christianity we can find peace. First Jesus brings peace in the most fundamental relationship, our relationship with God. By putting as at right terms with God, we suddenly have access to a rich resource of love. He loves us to the point that he changes us, helping us to love others. We begin to pray in thankfulness and humilty for our leaders, seeking for them to come to peace with God, too. As God begins to work in them, he likewise teaches them to love--to love people as well as justice for the people. Peace reigns. As Paul says elsewhere: "Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body" (Col 3:15).

I'm still not quite sure why the particular time at which Jesus came is specifically "the proper time." Perhaps God has waited until just the moment of crisis in the Jewish faith, when people have become sufficiently familiar with the body of the Hebrew Bible and its authority but also crticially strayed from the heart of its message to the point that they could clearly recognize their need for a Savior. By contrast, maybe "the proper time" is simply Paul's way of saying that God can choose whatever he pleases. He deemed the time proper, and so it was.

2:7) Just as Jesus is the Mediator, and we also are mediators, so also is Jesus "the testimony," and Paul is "a preacher...apostle...teacher." Jesus declares--embodies--the good news from God, and Paul similarly declares the good news that this good news has come. Once again we get to play the role of mini-Jesus, as his followers.

In light of Paul's declaration that the testimony comes "at the proper time" (v. 6), we might note that elsewhere Paul calls himself one who privileged to declare this testimony and yet "one untimely born" (1 Cor 15:8). While Jesus comes as the message itself at the proper time, Paul comes as one who declares the message almost by mistake, as if he shouldn't have even been born, let alone been granted such a privilege. God can take the Great and make it the Greatest, and he can take the scum and make it dwell among the Greatest. God can do all things through all people.

Paul's parenthetical statement stands out like a sore thumb to me: "I am telling the truth, I am not lying." Doesn't he sound like a child, defending himself bluntly, backing up his claims with no more than, "Take me at my word"? Is he just being sarcastic or facetious? Does he have some deeper meaning behind these words? On the contrary, maybe he is being as straightforward as possible. When everyone might roar in raucous mockery and laughter, he responds calmly, plainly, truthfully, "I am telling the truth. It's not that big a deal. It's simply what is." Being an apostle, whle a privilege granted to only a few, doesn't mean that he was some spiritual superstar. In fact, apostleship itself can be a rather unglamorous job. In a society of Jews and having grown up with a Judaic mentality, he has the unglorious, unenviable responsibility as "teacher of the Gentiles." He in a sense gets the backwoods job. He's the janitor of apostles. Yet he shows no shame for his position, but rather delight in his chance to be an apostle to a whole world of people, a world that includes Timothy himself. Paul is an apostle to Timothy.

2:8) Here we hit the controversy. I admit that I have so far thought little about how to reconcile these passages with what we have unnearthed through the modern world of opportunity and experimentation, where we have just begun to unshackle women from stereotype and traditionalism and allowed them to demonstrate their prowess. I have also thought little about the relevance of such modern experimentation, which by itself does not address the underlying ethical and doctrinal ones. Here I hope to prime my thoughts for further research on the Scriptures and their necessarily very practical interpretation--necessary because of their inescapable application on a day-to-day basis, for both women and the men who interact with them.

At first we might wonder why Paul shifts from mediatorship to prayer, but then we recall that he opens the passage on the subject of prayer, and we wonder how he ever got to mediatorship? In usual Pauline fashion, he has broken off on a digression, but at least he remembers to return to his original subject. Originally he exhorts us to pray for all people and uses this prayer to describe our general role as mediators, those who help people relate to God. Jesus is the ultimate Mediator, and as such, our ultimate example. Now Paul returns to one of our chief roles as mediators: people who pray for all people. "I desire then that in every place the men should pray," Paul concludes, for if we are to mediate and make prayers "for all people" (v. 1), we must be willing to pray "in every place," at any time, for every situation. We can follow the example of Nehemiah, who in the moment of crisis offers a snapshot prayer to God. When King Artaxerxes of Persia asks Nehemiah, "What are your requesting?" (Neh 2:4), Nehemiah replies, "So I prayed to the God of heaven" (v. 5), only he does not say this out loud, but simply does it, right there on the spot, before continuing, "If it pleases the king..." (v. 5). Prayers need be neither long nor involved. As Jesus tells us, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matt 6:8), the point of prayer is expressing our need, rather than describing it. At any given moment, in any given place, we can be ready to pray for all people. We need to pray, and they need our prayers.

Perhaps one of the most obvious and simultaneously subtle imipediments to prayer could be our attitude. Imagine that we sit down for a meal and have just been bashing someone with gossip, and now we have to say grace. The awkwardness can--or at least should--be profound. Or imagine that someone has just cut us off in the road, or flipped us off, and now some strange sensation dawns on us that perhaps we should be praying for these people. Probably the only hands we'll be lifting is our finger to flip them off in return. Some of the most gruesome situations come right in church. At the conclusion of a council or planning meeting, after heated exchanges and bitter frustration, we have to "close in prayer." Now suddenly we have to implement cool-off stages, where we can calm our minds and get into the attitude of prayer. But doesn't that defeat the purpose? Shouldn't we strive to maintain this attitude so that we can pray at any time, in any place? Cooling down is of course better than nothing, but perhaps we could strive for greater peace and readier prayer.

One question that arises is whether Paul means that we should literally lift up our hands? Worship teams generally take this passage literally, or at least apply it as such, whether they know it or not. They find great value in expressing it literally, which may show all the more why the term might be of use figuratively. Paul understands what it means to lift one's hands--to symbolically lift something else, the object of our praise. Just as we can symbolically lift God with our hands, so also we can lift him with our heads by looking to heaven, or our hearts by our expression of prayerful love. The expression breaks all barriers of physical manifestation.

The figurative key may rest in the word "holy." How can we have "holy hands"? Certainly not physically, for holiness on earth seems to have passed from the physical manifestations of the Old Testament to a purely spiritual one. Holy hands symbolizes the spiritual state of our action. If we use our "hands," our tools for action, we must perform with holiness, in purity. By lifiting them up to God, we consecrate them for his use, similarly to how priests of the Old Testament age have lifted the holy utensils and their very bodies to dedicate them to the service of the Lord.

For all the symbolism, sometimes the simple, physical interpretation is all that counts. Why not lift up our hands publically to God once in a while? If we have really dedicated ourselves to God, will we not want to call on him publically sometimes? Must we only bow our heads, as if ashamed, embarrassed, or telling the world that God is our private possession? May we lift our heads and hearts--and hands--to the God we love and who loves the world supremely!

2:9) Both the chief complaint and reconciiliation seem to lie in the word "adorn." At first glance Paul seems to say that women should dress plainly. Forget the braided hair and jewelry, he seems to say. But what does adorn really mean? Does he speak literally about this apparel?

2:10) Apparently not. The "respectable apparel" that he speaks of is "what is proper for women who profess godliness--...good works." In other words, he exhorts women to focus on their inner character rather than getting lost with their external beauty. Obviously he does not mean that women should literally drape themselves with good works, and likewise he does not mean that women should literally throw away their expensive clothing. To idolize that clothing or let it distract them from God, however, keeps women from true beauty. Beauty that digs deep and lasts forever stems from the maker of beauty and the keep of eternity. "Why are you anxious about clothing?" Jesus asks us. "Consider the lilie of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field...will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? ... Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt 6:28-30, 32). God knows beauty, and he knows how to make us beautiful, inside and out.

2:11) This exhortation to submissiveness isn't unique to women. Paul outlines the same principle in different words while writing to the Philippians: "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (1:3). He speaks not to one subgroup of the Philippian church, but to the entire body. The principle stems from perhaps the most basic goal of the Christian life: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus..." (v. 5), the goal of becoming more like Jesus, the pinnacle of submissiveness and obedience to God the Father.

2:12) However politically incorrect we may become, we must still hear out Paul for what he says and truly means. The matter of fact is that he speaks repetitively and forcefully about the role of women in a way that is subject both to the scorn and misunderstanding of many of our contemporaries. For some reason he seems to make the abominable claim that women should play a secondary role to that of men. In a sense he seems to have cut off half the world's population. Worse, as we'll soon see, he seems to do so based on what many would consider an outdated myth. Even worse, women seem to bear the blame of the mythical she-character in the myth, as if somehow modern women are at fault for that of their ancestor or mythical ancestor.

On the flip side, what if the myth stems from the principle, rather than the other way around? Maybe Paul isn't introducing any new concept here, but merely reiterating the principle that guided God in his creation. The very language of Paul in this passage seem to speak this way, as we'll see in the next verse. He seeks not to accuse women or relegate them to a secondary role, but to allot them the pivotal role that guided God's creation design. Perhaps God does not impose these apparent restrictions on women arbitrarily, but because it fulfills a key--even if not obvious--responsibility in the nurturing and development of humankind. To "remain quiet" is by definition un-obvious, yet not at all necessarily unimportant nor uncritical.

2:13) The interpretation of these next few verses changes dramatically if we alter the tone of Paul's voice in our own heads as we read them. If we imagine Paul as an accusatory lawyer--which he apparently was as a chief member of the Sanhedrin--then we might read the verses as a condemnation of women and exaltation of men. By contrast, if we see Paul as one who has emerged from the Sandhedrin, a former member who still writes as a lawyer but who believes as a new believer in Christ, we might hear Paul exulting in Christ's redemption of fallen creation. He writes that God has created Adam first, endowing him both the privilege and the responsibility of the firstborn. Adam neither earned nor deserves this position, but God merely gave it to him, pluses and minuses and all.

2:14) Unfortunately this order in creation became disrupted. Adam does not take responsibilty for his wife, and Eve does not subject herself to her husband or to God. Both sides, not Eve alone, have erred, and now all of creation bears the consequences. In a sense, if anyone were to be deceived, Adam should have been the one; he should have borne the responsibilty as transgressor. Instead, he has failed his role and heaped the guilt upon her.

2:15) God will not let his creation remain fallen forever. He will not allow Eve and the women she represents bear the guilt that never should have been theirs. How exactly does God begin to save womankind? "She will be saved through childbearing," writes Paul, another verse that seems to come out of the blue. What does childbearing have to do with salvation? In childbearing, both the husband and wife get to re-enact creation. At microscale, they begin to model and mimic Adam and Eve by joining as one flesh and being fruitful and multiplying. In their own family they can restore the roles and responsibilites that God has originally endowed each partner, and through childbearing they can extend that model to an ever-growing family tree of posterity. One caveat remains: "if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control." Re-enacting creation is easy, so long as we include the Fall. Re-enacting creation as God originally designed and intended for it requires faith, love, holiness, and self-control, weighty words for humanly impossible tasks, at least as fallen humans. Notice too the use of "they." Paul does not heap the responsibilty of returning to un-fallen creation on women. Both husband and wife must work as a team, re-claming the roles that they have both denied.

How could they ever manage? The key is to look at their salvation: "They will be saved through childbearing." They will not save themselves, but "be saved." Someone else, some redeemer, does the saving. This someone is not childbearing, for they are merely saved "through" childbearing; childbearing is one avenue this redeemer uses to save. This redeemer is the one to whom we must pray not only for our kings and governors and presidents, but also for our families, the heads of households--and by "heads" in the plural I mean the plural heads of each household, the authorities over those begotten in childbearing. Both partners act as partners, as a team that strives anew for the original creation. Together we must pray for these teams and their families in this humanly impossible task, for only through Jesus can families find restoration to the paradisaical Garden of Eden that God originally intended for humankind

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