Truth in the Pastoral Epistles: Its Revelation

Acts 17 records what is possibly the most vividly dramatic face-off in a book that has more than its fair share of gripping encounters. Paul has been plucked from his preaching on the streets of Athens to stand in the Areopagus, the intellectual heart of one of the most self-consciously intellectual societies the world has ever seen. It was the source of so many of the ideas that have shaped and continue to shape our own culture. It must have seemed a far-from-equal contest – one diminutive, itinerant preacher against the formidable phalanx of Athenian philosophy. Yet, as the encounter unfolded, it was the apostle who dominated. The Athenians were quickly put in their place as vapid seekers after novelty, ignorant worshipers of ill-defined deities, scrupulous in their religiosity but lacking any true knowledge of the God after Whom they so ineffectually groped.

No doubt the Athenians were affronted by Paul’s frank description of the ignorance that underpinned their intense intellectualism. It is no less an affront to the intellectual complacency of our day to realize that the world is still marked by the same characteristics that were so prominent in Athens. A feverish following of novelty, a longing “either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21, KJV) is still a dominant feature of our age. Just like the Greeks, mankind is still groping after God, ignorantly fashioning Him in their own likeness. All of our intellectual efforts and achievements are humbled by this great fact: “The world by wisdom knew not God” (1Cor 1:21, KJV). Failing to grasp even what may be known of God by natural revelation (Rom 1:20-21), the hands of humanity can never, without divine aid, grasp any concrete truth about who God is. Without divine revelation, we wander in a fog of competing ideas and conflicting philosophies. Into this confusion comes the same truth that echoed so compellingly around the Areopagus – God has spoken.

In contrast to the petty and petulant gods of the Greek pantheon, Paul tells his audience about a God Whose scope is universal and Whose sovereignty is incontestable. He tells them of a God Who creates, and a God Who resurrects. Between these two fundamental truths lies a third that is no less remarkable. God is a God Who speaks, Who commands, and Whose words have reached the ears of mankind.

That God should have spoken is a truth which should cause us to wonder and worship. It is a truth that dominates the pastoral epistles, which resonate with the wonder of divine revelation. This emphasis marks the epistles in a number of ways, but we will consider three occasions: 1 Timothy 3:16, 2 Timothy 1:8-12, and Titus 1:1-3 where Paul uses the word phaneroō (translated as “manifest”). In the articles that follow, Lord willing, we will look at these passages in more detail, but before doing so, it will be useful to consider some of the common themes.

We should begin by noticing that there is a time element in each passage. In 2 Timothy and Titus, this is explicit. Both of these trace the origin of divine revelation back to eternity, “before the world began” (literally “before eternal times,” NET). Both also emphasize the importance of the present dispensation. The “now” of 2 Timothy, and the “due time” of Titus both remind us that God’s program of revelation is unfolded in time. This emphasis on time is also present, if less overtly, in 1 Timothy. There, Paul speaks of the “mystery of godliness.” The word “mystery” in the NT always refers to truth concealed in earlier dispensations, but now made manifest. Each of these passages reminds us that truth is eternal and unchanging. God is not “making it up as He goes along.” The content of divine revelation is eternally determined. They also remind us of the uniqueness of the present dispensation, when the revelation of divine truth, which was partial and progressive in past dispensations, reached its finality and fullness. Paul spoke to the Athenians of a “now” that marked a dramatic change in divine communication. Writing to Timothy and Titus, he stressed the same thing. How thankful we should be to live in the light of the completed revelation of God.

The three passages share another common emphasis. They all highlight the fact that truth is believed. In 1 Timothy, we are presented with “the mystery of godliness” which is “confessedly great” (JND). The word translated “confessedly” or “without controversy” means “to say the same thing;” there is a unanimous attestation of this truth. We find similar expressions in the other passages. In 2 Timothy, Paul describes himself as a “teacher of the Gentiles.” Writing to Titus, he stresses that his apostleship, which is intimately connected with the proclamation of Divine revelation, is in accordance with the “faith of God’s elect” (1:1, KJV). The meaning of “faith” in this phrase is the subject of debate. There are, as we shall see, strong grounds for understanding it as referring to “the faith,” the content of what is revealed, rather than a subjective response to truth. In any case, whether we understand faith subjectively or objectively, it is clear that there is a group of people,  God’s elect, who believe the truth of divine revelation. The implications of this are clear. Truth in the pastoral epistles is absolute, but it is never abstract. When Paul writes about truth, he is speaking about a message revealed by God and accepted and believed by man. Notice that truth is not truth because it is believed. It is not that a group of Christians got together and decided what their version of truth would be. Rather, it is believed because it is truth, because it declares the unchanging character of the eternal God and tells of His great plan to redeem fallen man at unimaginable cost.

There is a third feature that is shared by these passages. In each, divine revelation is declared in a very particular way. Each of the passages, even 1 Timothy 3 which focuses our attention on the incarnation, refers to preaching. This fits with the teaching of the NT as a whole. Preaching is the means chosen by God for the communication of divine truth in this dispensation. This has a number of implications, perhaps most importantly that God intends truth to be verbally communicated. The prophets received and proclaimed “the word of the Lord” (a phrase that occurs more than 250 times in the OT). Christ is Himself “the Word” (John 1:1, KJV). It is in words that God reveals Himself. In the “now” of this dispensation, it is in the word preached that God communicates divine truth. We ignore this at our peril. Psychologists and scholars may offer us advice about the effectiveness of non-verbal or visual communication, but let us not forget that the God, Whose fingers have wired the intricate circuitry of our brains and Who has formed and shaped our intellect, has, in His Divine wisdom, selected preaching – public, verbal proclamation – as the means by which His truth should be proclaimed.

There are differences as well as similarities between these passages, of course, and as we consider them in more detail in the next few articles (DV), we will examine the way in which revelation is presented in each epistle – the revelation of a Person in 1 Timothy, of a Promise in Titus, and of a Purpose in 2 Timothy.